Air Force Pilot Escapes F-35 Fire During Takeoff

F-35A_maintainersA U.S. Air Force pilot safely escaped from an F-35 fighter jet after it caught fire during takeoff Monday morning at a military base in Florida.

The pilot, who wasn’t identified, was preparing to conduct a routine training mission around 9:15 a.m. at Eglin Air Force Base, but aborted the exercise due to a fire in the back end of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35A Lightning II, according to a statement from the service.

The pilot was able to shut down the engine and escape from the plane unharmed. Emergency responders extinguished the fire with foam. The test plane was assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing, which trains F-35 pilots for U.S. and international forces.

“We take all ground emergencies seriously,” Navy Capt. Paul Haas, vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, said in the statement. “In this case, the pilot followed the appropriate procedures which allowed for the safe abort of the mission, engine shutdown, and egress.”

He added, “We have a robust and extensive training program in which every pilot and aircraft crew member is trained, in order to respond quickly and correctly in the event emergencies occur.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire, where exactly it originated or how badly it damaged the aircraft, which cost more than $100 million apiece. The Air Force is still investigating the incident and pledged to release additional details as they become available.

One news report said the aircraft was “severely damaged” and “possibly destroyed.”

Spokesmen for Lockheed and United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney unit, which makes the F-35 engine, said they knew of the ground emergency involving the aircraft, but directed requests for additional information to the Air Force.

“We are aware of the incident at Eglin AFB yesterday involving an F-35A aircraft and Lockheed Martin is prepared to provide any assistance requested by the Air Force and the 33rd Fighter Wing,” Michael Rein, a spokesman for Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed, said in an e-mail.

“Pratt & Whitney stands ready to assist the 33rd Fighter Wing in its investigation,” Matthew Bates, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney military engines in East Hartford, Connecticut, said in an e-mail.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program is the Defense Department’s most expensive weapons acquisition program, estimated to cost almost $400 billion for a total of 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Developmental problems have kept the planes from flying in the past. Last year, the entire fleet was grounded after a crack was found on an engine turbine blade. More recently, test flights were reportedly stopped due to an engine valve fitting.

Operational flights of the aircraft are scheduled to begin next year. The Marine Corps’ version of the jet, called the F-35B, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane, is set to reach the milestone by December 2015; the Air Force’s by December 2016 and the Navy’s by February 2019.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Buddy Berry

    In 58 or 59, Republic was testing the F-105 at Eglin. There was to be a fly-over Tyndall for Armed Forces Day. The civilian test pilot was late for the event and broke the sound barrier over Panama City at a fairly low altitude. The Air Force and Republic paid claims for broken windows downtown P.C. I have made efforts to get official reports of this, but no luck.

  • Lance

    Glad the pilot is OK and escaped unharmed.

    Shows the JSF is far from ready for use in active USAF squadrons.

    • Jay Gibbs

      Why would you say this has any bearing on the aircraft’s abilities for combat? There have been plenty such incidents for full-production, combat-ready aircraft over the years. This did not cause any undue concern about those types of aircraft. These ground emergencies also happened well before the F-35, that’s why there are standard emergency procedures already in place.

      As a for instance of just how bad things can go wrong on proven, full-rate production airframes, take a look at the USS Forrestal fire the occurred back in the ‘Nam. We almost lost an entire aircraft carrier over that little mishap. As it was, there were hundreds of dead and wounded sailors as a result. That was an A-4- a fighter that was at that time very popular, and very effective, and like the JSF- was also marketed as a “Swiss Army knife” to our allies, all over the world. A craptastic event occurred, a lot of good people died, and a capital ship was nearly destroyed- but we didn’t collectively throw our hands up in the air and started lamenting like women about how the A-4 was a colossal failure. That said, the Forrestal incident was a catalyst for a drastic change in how the Navy would deal with damage control issues ever since.

      If this is about bashing the JSF just because it’s new and different, then you’d best just get over it. The nation is too heavily invested in the program at this point to just cancel it. Not gonna happen. We have to put on our big boy pants, and fix what remains to be fixed, period.

      • blight_

        The A-4 incident was a safety lapse that was seriously enhanced by using unstable WW2-era bombs. As a consequence of post-WW2 demob, we lost all the sailors experienced in wartime damage control and they didn’t train their replacements in Korea or Vietnam on how not to do things and how to do proper damage control. It got out of hand.

        Platform faults will be platform faults. Human faults will be human faults.

    • tmb2

      For all we know the pilot tried to taxi with the parking brake on. Let’s wait and see what the investigators have to say.

    • glenn57377

      Ditto. No jet ever worth its salt didn’t have break-in modifications. You don’t build one of the best instruments of war in a day. Give it some time. With the thing costing $100 mil apiece, let them do it right. Also, the spinoff technology that comes with this type of engineering is worth a fortune to future military and civilian manufacturing.

  • Bernard

    “This comment has been deleted by the administrator.”
    You guys need to fix that.

    Regardless, this plane should not be bursting into flames. We paid $400 billion and they still don’t work. We need to scrap these things now.

  • Happy to see that no one was injured. As with any new sophisticated machine, there will be growing pains. Every aircraft program has gone through this, the difference between this program and others is two fold, social media allows information to be disseminated widely and immediately, potentially creating a false sense that a major failure exists within the program, when in fact it may be an isolated event. Second, is the fact that this program has not completed flight test and they are flying production aircraft. While no military program really ever completes flight test, this program appears to be ahead of others with the number of aircraft produced and flown while the air system and its support functions are still in their infancy. So long has measures are taken to ensure safety is paramount, the program can proceed slowly. Situations such as this one, will be a reason to pause and ensure they are on the right track.

    • tekwyzrd

      ‘growing pains’?

      The contract was awarded in 1997, SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO. There is no excuse for the continuing increase in cost or inability to meet specs. The plane is a lemon. When the prototype went over budget by 50% Lockheed should have been eliminated. That should have been an indication the whole program would be massively over budget.

      I have to wonder if the whole F-35 program may be a cover for another ‘black’ project like the F-117.

    • True. I remember well the bad press and questions surrounding the F-16 when it was new (high loss rate, etc), and that was decades before instant gratification “social media” made everyone an expert and all opinions equally valid (not). The C-5 is another example of an aircraft that now serves an indispensable role in our military, and it had a pretty horrible development, roll out, and first decade or so in service. We in the AF didn’t call it FRED (F**king Ridiculous Economic Disaster) back then for nothing. This too shall pass.

      • dude

        Do you really want to compare to the c-5? Think about that… but then again maybe that’s a great analogy! Let’s not forget that th dod removed fire suppression equip from the pig to save a million per airframe.

        “The f35, just as good as the c5!”

        • Mark

          100,000,000 a plane vs what for the C5? Just as good but 100s of time more expensive

      • blight_

        Which points to a buy-first, fix-later model of procurement that has been in existence for decades.

  • Rod

    Glad that the pilot got out.

    Highly disconcerting that after all the costs overruns, this occurred with what should be the most simple variant of the aircraft – hope this is a minor wrinkle in a new system that needs to be ironed out. So Pratt & Whitney or Lockheed Martin is getting the bill for this right?

  • BlackOwl18E

    Yep, this thing is terrible. This is what happens when you lift the grounding too early on a plane not ready to fly. NAVAIR knows their **** and grounded the F-35B and F-35C when they discovered the new oil leak problem. They expected the F-35A to be grounded as well, but the USAF just kept charging ahead.

    On the bright side, the F-35 supporters are already under fire in congress and they are losing the arguments. We’ve simply spent too much already on this thing and it’s taking away from other big spending projects that the government has lined up as well as putting us in more debt. All of this is being done with little or nothing in return. I’m finally seeing a possibility where this thing will be killed off sometime before 2020, despite what everyone keeps saying about it being here to stay. It’s time to cut our losses and build a new aircraft, one that isn’t made through concurrency and is preferably built around a more specific mission and a specific service rather than trying to accommodate the needs of all three.

  • Every new weapons system introduced into the inventory has its ‘growing pains’. I do not believe there as been one new A/C developed that hasn’t experienced its share of problems. Perhaps the B-2 may be an exception. Haven’t heard of any of them going down yet. (Perhaps that’s because I worked on it)
    Suffice it to say that as long as we keep pushing the envelope and technology, there are going to be glitches no matter what the cost. Also remember these Aircraft are built here in the USA. All of the cost for them is put right back into our economy thru jobs. The money doesn’t go into a hole in the ground. It keeps thousands of Americans employed.

  • Michael

    What I understand is that the JSF’s fire-fighting system was removed to save weight and that the fluids in the hydrolic system are replaced by fuel, again to save weight. (And still the JSF is overweight). This means that the JSF is highly susceptible to fire. Not a very desirable characteristic for what is destined to be a single engine front line fighter. One rifle round fired from the ground damaging the hydrolic system will turn the JSF into a fire ball. So much for CAS!

  • Ben

    Sure, every new program has accidents/malfunctions like this, but with a total cost of around $250 a pop it’s not nearly as acceptable…

  • F18 Techrep

    I worked on F18s when they first hit the fleet ( before any active fleet squadrons actually had them) I remember it seemed that every other week there were rumors od the program getting canceled… Cracks in the wheelwells, vertical stabs flapping like seagull wings under high AOA ect. Look at the aircraft now 40 years later and they are still building them and extending the flights hours. JSF will be no different than any other platform just have to work the bugs out. These (all aircraft) are all so complicated these days that it takes a while to get all the parts to play nice together.

  • afretwife

    What is the difference between a demokraptic senate bill and a F-35.
    There is NO difference, both were dreamed up by corrupt politicians and moonbeamers.

  • blight_

    The X-32 and X-35 are so unlike the final product that the final select was probably somewhat misleading. They should’ve given Boeing and Lockheed more time: One for LM to redo their -35 with internal bays, and then to give Boeing more time to work out their wing issues. LM’s fan would still have beaten Boeing’s classical system, but it would’ve forced some more design honesty up front…and perhaps caused Congress to wring its hands in despair instead of sinking so much money into the idea.

    The -35B won against the -32B in terms of lift, but clearly to get that lift it turned out to burn tarmac. I wonder if that caveat had been noted during the select phase…

    An amusing argument between -32 and -35 fanboys: http://www.f-16.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=12786

    Neither Boeing or LM was ready to make the F-16 replacement with the technology in hand at the time. But the military wanted a program to spend that money immediately, so they rushed into it, thinking starting early would save them time and money…nope.

    • Nadnerbus

      It seems like downselecting based on what is pretty much a hand built prototype airframe is a pretty bad way to decide which competitor will get the contract. At that point, over half the final design and integration for the end product hasn’t even been done yet. It would be like picking your next car based on the seeing the new body styling even though the engine, drive train, and electronics have yet to be designed and integrated.

      The military would probably do well to go back to the old X-plane type system where the new technology was hammered out first in a couple of purpose built technology demonstrators, instead of trying to get it all working in one brand new package from the get go.

    • Atomic Walrus

      There was a lot more to the down-select than demonstrator performance. Each of the competitors had to submit a detailed proposal like any other military project. That technical proposal was the basis of the down-select. The demonstrators were just that – technology demonstrators. They were intended to validate the concepts (e.g. shaft-driven lift fan, direct lift) more than produce a real aircraft. The demonstrators definitely did highlight some problems, not the least of which was that the Boeing design was going to have significant challenges in its V/STOL version. It’s also not a bad test of an engineering team. If you can’t work out the design for the demonstrator and build it on schedule, it may point to challenges in getting the bigger project done.

    • William_C1

      I agree with you blight that it would have been smart to have both companies develop their aircraft into a more finalized form. The issue is money and how do you convince politicians to pay for it when they know in the end only one design will be bought. That’s always a challenge.

  • tekwyzrd

    “It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire, where exactly it originated or how badly it damaged the aircraft, which cost more than $100 million apiece.”

    The most recent F-35s that were delivered were priced at $207 million each. While “more than $100 million apiece” is correct, this number downplays the actual cost and loss associated. A $207 million plane should NOT just ‘catch fire’.

  • hibeam

    Shot down on the runway. The greatest humiliation in aviation.

  • retired462

    There is no way that the F-35 can replace the A-10! Why don’t the generals that are supposed to take care of the troops on the ground admit it. I guess that a PAC job means more to them. Shame on them. The generals that were around more than 50 years ago, must be losing sleep over the new breed. I am sure Curtis Lemay would not approve! Time to put the lives of these young people over money in the pocket!

  • Big-Dean

    Ok, we can see that the F-35 mafia is on Defcon 1, ready to defend the pig, and they will say the following

    “Fire are a normal part of development, we can expect that to happen…”

    or

    “The new code dump will fix this little fire problem…”

    or

    “Every new plane catches on fire, that’s normal…”

    or the best for last

    “The F-35 is SO advanced and SO sophisticated that it is gained a level of intelligence and this little fire thing is a normal part of it becoming self-aware…”

    • 16,000 flight hours and this is the first accident. Name the 4th generation aircraft with a record like that?

    • dale christopher

      LOL this dude is mad funny! I’m not surprised with the way Americans view they can treat A.I. without any consequences that one of the first self-aware computers would try to kill itself!

  • L. Hildreth

    To comment on a previous commenters statement.
    The F-35 was not designed, nor claimed to be a vertical takeoff aircraft.
    It is a short takeoff and has vertical landing capability.
    I’m sure there will be times when in an emergency, pilots will try a vertical landing
    if it will be better than other alternatives.

  • Jack Revere

    I think these awesome weapons are too advanced for the pilots. More training is needed.

    • blight_

      Unsure how more “pilot training” can address fires.

  • Buster101

    wasn’t there a story not long ago about the oxygen system on the F-35 causing pilots to black out, and 1 air force pilot refused to fly a mission and was grounded by the base commander for refusing to fly it, something along that line anyway, plus the A-10 being decommissioned, a big mistake when it’s primary mission of troop ground support is suited to the situation in Iraq right now; wish there was more common sense in mission planning & not just $s & cents!

  • oblatt22

    And here we see the payoff of removing those emergency fuel valves – once a fire starts thats the end.

    F-35 pilots are are advised to check for bacon in case their pig is on fire.

  • RiverRat

    I bet if you got the old Skunk Works crew working on this (you know the same geniuses that made the most amazing aircraft from scratch) they would get it done in a timely manner and under budget. Plus with all the new technology they get to play with, they’d have a hay day.

  • Han Solo

    Someone left the gas cap off… DUH

  • Dig-Dean

    We had a little jodi we used to sing about the F-35 back while I was in AOCS, it went like this

    “JP-5 sticks to pigs, watch them sizzle, watch them fizz
    the Junk Strike Fighter is a mighty fat pig
    fire up the engines and watch it sizz
    ’cause LockaMart’s got a long term gig
    the air force don’t realize what they did
    when they stuffed this pig
    JP-5 sticks to pigs, watch them sizzle, watch them fizz…”

    • William_C1

      Yeah, doesn’t the USAF use JP-8? Nice try though.

  • metfanlou

    “Hey Joe, do you know where you left the warranty on that 100 million dollar F35. I really, really need it?” “Nah, I normally just throw all that paperwork away, but I may have registered it on line. I Just don’t remember.” “Oh crap!”

  • hibeam

    The flaming F-35. Yet another variant.

  • Wayne

    One cannot blame the aircraft until the cause is determined with certainty. The problem could be a maintenance issue, foreign object damage or a myriad of other things not necessarily related to the design or manufacture. Until then the accusations are all based on assumption. I, for one, will wait for the results of the investigation before throwing the rotten tomatoes.

  • key rob e

    hey the 1940 ford the p51 that my capt friend bill o flu the f84 r was it f86 s f15 r16 now they were and the p40 now they were planes just ask capt bill o ha

    • blight_

      You forgot the link to Coach bags.

  • hibeam

    The Marine Corps’ version of the jet can take off like a helicopter fly like a plane and destroy the viability of the entire program like a cross eyed weasel.

  • Mark

    The F-35 is happening. The F-35C now makes arrested landings upto and including maximum sink rates. The Harrier pealed concrete. So if the F-35B peals concrete it is just maintaining status quo. The helmet queuing system for the F-35 will be used.

  • YoTurkish

    Pile of junk, but this is already common knowledge to the entire rest of the world.

    It would be better to cancel this program while there’s still a chance to recover from this enormous blunder and then refocus on building a proper 5th generation fighter can actually meet the requirements for modern warfare. Or at the very least, we should be able to make a fighter that can exceed the capabilities of vintage Cold War era 3rd & 4th generation fighters.

    • tiger

      It took 20 years to get this far. Not happening…

  • HeavyArrow

    I think people fail to realize that:
    Planes have the ability to catch fire. They will catch fire from time to time.
    I also think that there is a group who just follow F-35 news waiting for something bad to happen so they can harp about how bad it is.
    It’s still in testing. Of course there will be incidents.

  • TED

    WE already have the f-22′ the most deadly fighter in the world. I’d like to see us buy more of them. Any fool knows that no single aircraft can do all tasks required of them but what do I know I just sweep the floor and run the elevator. the Old Sarge

  • This makes one wonder why the AFTI-16 was never put into production? As well as why nobody thought we could use a low cost, low maintenance cost, but excellent performing aircraft like the F-20?

  • tiger

    I bet General Motors will issue a recall on the F35……