(Adds details, Lockheed statement)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, June 23 The U.S. Air Force on Monday
temporarily halted flights at a Florida air base of 26 F-35A
fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp after a jet
caught fire as it was preparing to take off for a training
flight, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The pilot aborted the takeoff and was not injured, said Joe
DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 program office.
He had no immediate details on the cause of the fire or extent
of the damage to the F-35 conventional takeoff model.
The fire occurred in the rear part of the plane where the
engine is located, but it was unclear whether the engine was
involved. Engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United
Technologies Corp, said it was aware of the incident and
stood ready to assist in the Air Force investigation.
The incident came just days before a group of F-35 B-model
jets are due to fly to Britain for the jet's international
debut. One U.S. defense official said it was too soon to say
whether the fire would delay those plans or affect them in any
DellaVedova said it was unclear what caused the fire, but
Air Force officials had temporarily suspended flights of the
A-model jets at the base until the root cause was found.
"Safety is paramount, and all F-35A flight operations have
been temporarily suspended at Eglin as they investigate the
nature of the incident," he said.
Emergency responders were able to put out the fire, which
occurred about 0915 local time, he said.
Lockheed referred questions to the 33rd Fighter Wing, which
is responsible for training F-35 pilots for the Air Force, Navy,
Marine Corps and international militaries.
This is the second incident that has affected F-35 flights
in recent weeks. The U.S. military ordered mandatory inspections
of all 97 F-35 fighter jets earlier this month after a Marine
Corps F-35 B-model jet suffered an oil leak in flight.
The incident was resolved quickly, and all but three jets
returned to flight status with days. Those three jets are being
repaired to deal with a faulty part, the F-35 spokesman said.
It was not immediately clear whether the fire would trigger
fleet-wide inspection orders for all three models of the F-35.
Lockheed is building three models of the new warplane for
the U.S. military: a conventional takeoff version for the Air
Force, a short takeoff and vertical landing version for the
Marine Corps, and a carrier-based version for the Navy.
Britain helped fund development of the radar-evading jet,
along with seven other countries: Australia, Norway, Italy,
Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey and Canada. Japan, Israel and
South Korea have also placed orders for the warplane.
News of the fire also overshadowed a new report from the
Pentagon's chief weapons buyer that showed the projected cost of
retrofits required for the jet had dropped to $1.65 billion as
of February 2014, from $1.75 billion a year earlier.
It said Lockheed was working closely with the F-35 program
office to reduce the time required to implement design changes
into the production line, which was helping to lower the cost.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chris Reese and Ken