Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stands in front of an F-35 joint strike fighter as he talks to reporters inside a hangar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. (Marcus Weisgerber/Staff)
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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FLA. — The Pentagon is not expected to announce Thursday whether the F-35 joint strike fighter will fly to the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK, a defense official said.
US officials were still reviewing the cause of a June 23 engine fire that broke out on an Air Force jet on takeoff. This led to the grounding of all F-35 aircraft.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is visiting Eglin today where he received updates on the multiservice, multinational F-35 program. He also met with pilots and maintainers from the 33rd Fighter Wing, which trains F-35 pilots and maintainers for the US and foreign militaries. He also sat in the cockpit of a jet.
“What they are doing now is they’re taking all the information that they got from the inspections and they’re putting all together and continuing the overall investigation to see how does this all match up and what do we have,” Hagel said. “We’re not going to put the F-35 in the air, send it anywhere, until we are absolutely convinced and know that it’s safe to fly.”
Hagel said he will leave the timing of the decision up to the experts.
“We have a lot riding on this aircraft,” Hagel said.
The aircraft was scheduled to fly this weekend at the Royal International Air Tattoo in the UK, which now is highly unlikely considering the lead time to fly the aircraft across the Atlantic.
Since the grounding, pilots at Eglin, home to the F-35 training schoolhouse, have been using simulators and discussing new ways to tactically employ the aircraft, Lt. Col. Eric Smith, 33rd Fighter Wing operational support squadron commander, said in a meeting with reporters.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it down time,” Smith said.
Hagel said airmen, sailors and Marines at Eglin expressed confidence in the jet, despite issues that have arisen throughout the program.
Hagel said incidents during the development of new weapons, like the F-35, are common.
The Air Force jet involved in the fire is still at Eglin, 1st Lt. Hope Cronin, 33rd Fighter Wing spokeswoman, said.
There is no date when flying is expected to resume, she said. ■