WASHINGTON Military officials hope to prevent the kind of confusion that followed a recent engine failure that grounded Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jets for more than three weeks, the U.S. Air Force's top officer said on Wednesday.
Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh said a memorandum now being drafted would suggest ways to better share information and determine which parties needed to involved in any future incidents.
He defended the initial response to a June 23 engine fire when asked about reports that the Air Force's investigation initially shut out both the Pentagon's F-35 program office and officials from the engine's manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.
In the incident, an engine on one of the F-35 jets broke apart and caught fire during takeoff from a Florida air base. That triggered a fresh round of criticism about the $400 billion program, the world's costliest weapons project, and prevented the jet's planned international debut at two UK air shows.
Welsh said it would be "alarmist" to suggest there was a larger problem with the F135 engine.
"The F-35 has now flown 8,700 sorties over 14,000 flight hours, and this is the first time we've had a major engine fire," he said. "I'm confident that the program will remain on track and that we'll reach initial operational capability in December 2016. This fire's not going to affect that."
Some lawmakers said the incident in Florida showed the vulnerability of relying on a single engine to power thousands of aircraft. The Pentagon initially funded development of a second engine for the F-35 by General Electric, but canceled the program several years ago to save money.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James said engine incidents were not unusual in a development program.
"I do not believe that this was in any way a showstopper," James said. "It was unfortunate that it happened, but ... we'll work through it."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ros Krasny and Tom Brown)