US military has grounded its entire fleet of F-35 joint strike fighters after the aircraft’ fuel tubes were suspected to be the cause of a crash last month in which the jet was completely destroyed.
The Defense Department made the announcement in a statement issued on Thursday.
“The US Services and international partners have temporarily suspended F-35 flight operations while the enterprise conducts a fleet-wide inspection of a fuel tube within the engine on all F-35 aircraft,” the F-35 Joint Program Office said.
“If suspect fuel tubes are installed, the part will be removed and replaced. If known good fuel tubes are already installed, then those aircraft will be returned to flight status,” it added.
The program office noted that inspections could be completed within the next two days, adding that the inspections were prompted by “initial data from the ongoing investigation of the F-35B that crashed” close to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, South Carolina, on September 28.
The expensive aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash during training. According to one official, “It’s a total loss.”
Images posted on social media show a plume of black smoke rising above what users described as the crash site.
It was an F-35 “B” variant, which is used by the Marine Corps, and it is capable of taking off from a short runway and landing vertically.
No serious injury was reported after the incident and according to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the pilot safely ejected and was being evaluated for injuries.
“The aircraft mishap board is continuing its work and the US Marine Corps will provide additional information when it becomes available,” the F-35 Joint Program Office said in the Thursday statement.
The US military has had a series of aircraft crashes in the past year, including an emergency landing with a Marine Corps F-35B in April, at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
The program office insisted that it will “take every measure to ensure safe operations while we deliver, sustain and modernize the F-35 for the warfighter and our defense partners.”
The F-35 aircraft will become the main fighter aircraft for the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy, according to a military official.
Although unit costs vary, the price tag of F-35s is estimated at $100 million each. Future production lots of F-35s are predicted to decrease slightly in price.
The F-35 program, which was first launched in the early 1990s, is regarded as the most expensive weapons system in US history, with its costs estimated to be around $400 billion and a goal to produce 2,500 aircraft in the coming years.
Overall program costs are expected to rise to $1.5 trillion if servicing and maintenance costs are factored in over the aircraft’s lifespan through 2070.
The plane’s state-of-the-art features – radar-dodging stealth technology, supersonic speeds, close air support capabilities, airborne agility and a massive array of sensors – enable pilots to have unparalleled access to information.
However, the program has experienced numerous delays, cost overruns and setbacks, including a mysterious engine fire in 2014 that prompted commanders to temporarily ground the planes.