WASHINGTON Aug 13 The U.S. Defense Department
on Wednesday said it had further eased limits on flights of some
Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets that were imposed
after a June 23 engine failure that grounded the F-35 fleet for
over three weeks.
The Pentagon also said it was making progress in separate
contract negotiations with both prime contractor Lockheed, and
enginemaker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp
, for the next batches of aircraft and engines.
The twenty-plus F-35 test planes in the U.S. fleet will now
be able to fly six hours between engine inspections for aerial
refueling missions and weapons testing, up from three hours,
said F-35 program office spokesman Joe DellaVedova.
Other test flights and flights of dozens of F-35 training
aircraft operated by the Air Force and Marine Corps are still
subject to the three-hour mandatory engine inspections that were
implemented after the engine mishap, he said.
The Pentagon had already relaxed some flight restrictions on
the test aircraft last month, allowing them to resume flying at
speeds of 1.6 Mach, up from 0.9 Mach.
Training jets operated by the U.S. Air Force and Marine
Corps remain subject to speed limits that were in place even
before the engine incident, which prevented the jet's debut at
two UK air shows last month.
DellaVedova said military officials continued to investigate
the root cause of the June 23 incident in which the engine on an
Air Force training jet broke apart and caught fire just before
takeoff from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
He said contract negotiations between the F-35 program
office and the two companies were "progressing" but gave no
indication when those deals could be signed.
Lockheed is in talks with the Pentagon about a contract for
an eighth batch of 43 fighter planes. Pratt is negotiating with
the Pentagon about the seventh and eighth batches of engines,
which the government buys separately.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the F-35
program for the Pentagon, earlier this year said he expected to
reach agreement with both companies by late May or early June,
although he told reporters at the time that he would "not rush
into a bad deal."
Bogdan is due to speak to a conference of F-35 suppliers
this week as the Pentagon continues work with Lockheed, Pratt
and other contractors to drive down the cost of the F-35, the
Pentagon's costliest new weapons program.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Andrew Hay)