Nevada air base begins F-35 testing; more jets to come

WASHINGTON, March 19 Tue Mar 19, 2013 5:27pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday marked the start of operational testing of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 stealth fighter at an air base near Las Vegas, but one of four initial jets to be tested remained in Texas after an unscheduled landing en route to the base last week.

Lockheed officials said the fourth F-35 A-model was unable to fly to Nellis Air Force Base as planned on Tuesday, but it was not immediately clear if it was bad weather or other issues that prevented the jet's departure.

The state-of-the-art fighter jet has been parked at a commercial airport in Lubbock, Texas, since March 11 after a caution light came on in the cockpit during its flight from the Lockheed plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to the Nevada air base, requiring the pilot to land.

The incident was the latest in negative news about the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which has been grounded twice this year for engine-related issues.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 program office, said the caution light was set off by wiring connector issues with the plane's flight control system, and had been repaired. The plane was now cleared for flight, he said.

DellaVedova noted that the F-35 has redundant flight control systems, and there was no "safety of flight issue" involved when the pilot landed at Lubbock airport last week.

It was not immediately clear when the F-35 A-model would continue its journey to the Nevada air base. Aside from one night in a fenced area, the plane has been kept in a guarded hangar at the airport, according to airport officials.

Orlando Carvalho, who served as Lockheed's F-35 program manager until Monday, when he was named to replace Larry Lawson as head of Lockheed's aeronautics division, attended Tuesday's ceremony marking the start of testing at the Nevada air base.

"The work done by the Nellis team will forge the F-35 into the fighter of the future and test it to its limits. Their skilled pilots and maintainers will take the F-35's performance to new heights," Carvalho said in a statement.

Lockheed has delivered 24 conventional takeoff and landing A-model F-35s to the Air Force, and 58 in total to the Pentagon.

The Air Force squadron at Nellis Air Force Base will start testing and training with four F-35s initially, but by 2019, a total of 12 F-35s will be assigned to the base.

Lockheed is developing and building three models of the F-35 fighter for the U.S. military and eight countries that are helping to fund its development: Britain, Canada, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Australia, the Netherlands and Denmark. Israel and Japan have also placed orders for the new radar-evading warplane.

Officials from the U.S. military and the eight countries funding the plane's development are meeting in Washington on Wednesday for a twice-yearly review of progress on the single-seat, single-engine jet.

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