Approval for US Marine Corps F-35B aircraft to appear at Farnborough may be easier than for UK-owned models. (MICHAEL D. JACKSON/Joint Strike Fighter program)
WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter fleet remains grounded, even as the deadline to make two major British air shows quickly approaches.
The good news for supporters of the JSF: It may be possible for most of the fleet to stay grounded while a few planes attend what has been billed as a major showcase for the program.
Pentagon inspectors continue to review the technical data gathered in the wake of a June 23 fire that claimed an F-35A model at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. As part of that investigation the entire fleet of F-35 models was grounded last Thursday.
However, the Marines may decide they have no concerns about their F-35B jump-jet models and allow the jets to travel overseas, a result of the complicated ownership issues that arise from having nine international partners and three US military services invested in the program.
“There are separate and distinct processes [for each partner], and they all involve different technical reviews,” Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman for the F-35 joint program office, said. “As part of that, there is the possibility NAVAIR would allow for return to flight before the Air Force or the UK did depending how they analyze and accept that data and manage risk.”
In other words, even if the United Kingdom or US Air Force says it is not ready to clear their F-35s, the Marines could still make the trip and fly at the airshows.
In theory, this could provide the easiest solution on how to get the F-35 to its appointments at the Royal International Air Tattoo this weekend or, more likely, next week’s Farnborough International Airshow. Originally, the plan involved flying over a mix of Marine and UK-owned B models to show off to international customers, but if the UK does not clear its models for flight those would be left behind in the US.
Getting UK flight worthiness is likely to take longer than from either of the US services, the result of far stricter rules than in America. In the UK, whoever signs off on air worthiness for an aircraft can be held personally responsible if an incident occurs.
While the UK F-35B may not make the trip, the Marines could easily paint their jets with the UK’s colors and present just as much a spectacle while flying.
Before the grounding, the appearance at the two British shows had been heralded as a big moment for the program, one that would show it is on track both financially and programmatically following years of well-publicized delays. On Thursday, the F-35 team is hosting a special JSF-themed day at RIAT.
Asked about the status of the grounding, Hawn said the JPO had “no significant status update at this time,” but said conversations are continuing in regards to the technical review.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told a news conference Tuesday that no decision has been made on whether the F-35 would make it first trip across the Atlantic to Farnborough and the air tattoo.
“They’re certainly mindful that the air show is beginning, but I don’t think that we want to rush to a decision here, too,” he said. “I think a decision will be coming pretty soon, but I couldn’t give you an exact timeline on that.”
On Thursday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will visit Eglin, home to F-35 pilot training.
“The secretary’s visit particularly at this time sends a strong message to our international partners that the United States remains fully committed to the F-35 program,” Kirby said.
Kirby said Hagel is “confident that the investigation [into the June 23 fire] will help the F-35 return to flight, and he’s looking forward to hearing more firsthand from the folks on the ground there at Eglin.”
Vago Muradian and Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.