US grounds F35 Lighting fighters

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THE United States has grounded all its F-35 Lightning II fighters, the type of aircraft due to fly operationally from HMS Queen Elizabeth, after one caught fire on a runway last month.

The US Department of Defence (DoD) said all 97 stealth fighters would face additional engine inspections following the incident at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on June 23.

The F-35 is due to make its international debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford from July 11 but the DoD said it would make a final decision on whether it attends early next week.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said the decision to ground the fighters, which are undergoing testing before becoming operational, was taken by the Department of the Air Force and Department of the Navy based on initial findings from the runway fire incident.

In a statement he said: ‘The root cause of the incident remains under investigation.

‘Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered, and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data.

‘Defence Department leadership supports this prudent approach.

‘Preparations continue for F-35 participation in international air shows in the United Kingdom, however a final decision will come early next week.’

As well as flying at RIAT it is also scheduled to fly at the Farnborough Air Show later this month in its first appearances outside the US.

The Ministry of Defence says F-35s are due to become operational with the RAF in 2018, with trials for the Queen Elizabeth carrier aircraft taking place the same year.

It has so far bought three of the aircraft, which are all currently based in the US, while Royal Navy and RAF pilots train on them, with more due to be ordered.

The fifth-generation single-seat stealth fighters are powered by Pratt & Whitney F-135-600 engines which allow them to reach Mach 1.6.

In May 2012 Defence Secretary Philip Hammond decided to revert to plans by the former Labour government to acquire the F-35B jump-jet version.

Under proposals set out in the 2010 strategic defence and security review (SDSR), the coalition had intended to switch to the more capable F-35C carrier variant of the aircraft - even though it meant mothballing one of the two carriers on grounds of affordability.

But the costs of fitting the necessary catapults and arrester gear, ‘’cats and traps’’, had more than doubled to £2 billion.

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