Grounding taints F-35 fighter debut

WASHINGTON — It is supposed to be the headliner of the show next month, when the most-expensive fighter jet ever built makes its international debut in England. There will be plenty of other planes at the Farnborough Air Show, but none will get as much attention as the F-35 Lightning II, the futuristic sleek and stealthy jet that proponents say is unparalleled in the history of human flight.

But this week, an F-35A, the Air Force’s variant of the much-heralded plane, caught fire, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff and leading to the suspension of scores of training flights across the country, as investigators scramble to figure out what went wrong.

The fire may have caused damage to the aircraft’s stealth coating, she said, making it the first possible Class A mishap — incidents that cause $1 million in damage or more.

The fire in the rear of the plane, which was doused by emergency crews at Eglin Air Force base in Florida on Monday and resulted in no injuries, was the second problem in the past two months. In June, an oil leak discovered by a pilot in flight led to another suspension of flights.

While Pentagon officials say the F-35 is still expected to make its appearance overseas next month, the problems have sowed even more doubt about a program that was for years over budget and behind schedule. And it comes at a time when the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland, is trying to sell the jet to international clients in an effort to keep production costs down as U.S. defense spending tightens.

“Potential customers are mindful that this program has had a lot of teething problems,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Virginia-based Teal Group. “If this is cleared up quickly, it won’t be a problem. But if it persists through Farnborough, that’s going to hurt.”

Lockheed has had some recent success selling the plane overseas, particularly to Korea, Israel, Japan and Australia. And Farnborough, a large gathering of aerospace companies and military buyers from all over the globe, was seen as a prime opportunity to showcase the F-35 to more foreign governments.

But critics and competitors are likely to pounce on the recent mishaps, Aboulafia said. And they come as the fighter jet has been facing an attack by Boeing, which says that its EA-18G Airborne Electric Attack Aircraft, known as the “Growler,” is better at providing stealth.

Kyra Hawn, a spokesperson for the F-35 joint program office, said Friday that the Air Force and Navy continued to keep their version of the aircraft on the ground. The Marine Corps F-35B, the version that is scheduled to appear at Farnborough, is expected to resume flights this weekend, she said.

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