Entire US fleet of F-35s grounded for engine inspections

The F-35B Lightning II fifth generation multi-role combat aircraft showing its vertical lift fan at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort

The entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets has been grounded to inspect the aircraft for suspected faulty fuel tubes, the U.S. military said.

Of the 280 operational F-35s purchased to date by the US and global partners, only about half can fly, Vice Adm. The F-35B is the Marine Corps version of the aircraft.

The grounding is in response to data from the ongoing investigation of the Marine Corps' F-35B Lightning II that crashed near Beaufort, S.C. on September 28, according to a statement by the F-35 Joint Program Office.

"If suspect fuel tubes are installed, the part will be removed and replaced". If good tubes are already installed, then those planes would be returned to operational status.

More than 320 F-35s are already operating from 15 bases worldwide, although the Pentagon and Lockheed continue to wrestle with resolving more than 900 deficiencies, including flaws in the plane's complex software.

The temporary suspension of all F-35 flights is an embarrassment given the extraordinary cost of this frequently troubled programme. US officials said the suspension would apply only to those F-35s with a certain kind of fuel tube, which one official estimated at roughly half the fleet.

The first U.S. combat mission conducted by an F-35 happened last month when a Marine Corps jet launched off the amphibious warship USS Essex struck targets in Afghanistan.

It wasn't immediately clear how many aircraft were affected. The pilot safely ejected.

"The primary goal following any mishap is the prevention of future incidents", DellaVedova said.

The Joint Program Office statement included "international partners" in the flight operation grounding, though the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence tweeted they have only "paused some F-35 flying as a precautionary measure while we consider the findings of an ongoing enquiry".

In April, a Marine Corps F-35B out the Marine Corps air station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, was forced to make an emergency landing when the aircraft fuel light came on.

Last month, the Pentagon announced that the latest batch of F-35s would cost the military $89 million per unit for the most common variant, the first time the plane's price tag had dropped below $90 million. "So why is there such a disparity between military aircraft, that are brand new, and commercial aircraft?" Depending on the availability of parts, the fuel tube can be replaced quickly. It represents a step-change in capability but the F-35's complexity has inevitably thrown up problems. The US government's accountability office estimates all costs associated with the project will amount to one trillion dollars.

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