A model of the F-35 on display at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, England. (Aaron Mehta/staff)
LONDON — The F-35 joint strike fighter fleet remains grounded in the United States, meaning any hope of making it for the planned international debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo this weekend has now ended.
Those hoping for a glimpse of the advanced jet now turn their eyes toward the Farnborough International Airshow, which kicks off Monday outside of London.
The Tattoo was supposed to be the first international exhibition to the public – and potential international customers – of the capabilities of the F-35. As of now, a quarter of advanced fighters is stuck waiting at a Navy base in the US for the word they can make the trip.
Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 joint program office, acknowledged on Thursday the importance of getting the plane over to the UK.
"It is important for the international community to see this is not a paper airplane," he said.
At the same time, Bogdan made it clear that safety is his priority, and he would not compromise that in order to get the planes over for a public display.
Making sure the jets have a safe trip was a priority from the get-go, even before the grounding was ordered as a result of an ongoing investigation into a June 23 fire that claimed an F-35A model, designated AF-27, at Eglin Air Force Base.
A source with knowledge of the situation said the travel plan calls for the four F-35Bs to be refueled around 20 times each. The reason: for the first trip across the Atlantic, the service wants to make sure the plane is able to get to land in case of any emergency. The idea is to keep tanks above three-quarters full at all times.
The source added that this is fairly typical of new designs making their first flight across an ocean. A spokesman for the US Marines, who operate the F-35B models that would be traveling to the UK, declined to comment in detail about the operational plan.
The question now is whether the plane will be given the all-clear in time to make it to Farnborough. While the show begins Monday, business is conducted all week, followed by a public display July 19 and 20.
Lorraine Martin, the vice president in charge of the F-35 program for Lockheed Martin, told reporters Thursday that making the trip is worth it, even if it arrives for only one or two days of the show.
"This is a deployment," Martin said. "This is the US Marine corps deploying their aircraft overseas, testing spare parts, testing ALIS [the plane's logistics system] remotely, testing their flying profiles and how to do a long duration flight. This has value in it which far outreaches the air show… they're going to learn a lot."■