Plans for F-35 UK debut still on despite flight suspensions

A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter flies toward its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in this U.S. Air Force picture taken on January 11, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago/Handout

By Andrea Shalal WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Flights of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jets remained suspended on Wednesday as Air Force officials investigated a fire that damaged one of the jets on Monday, but the Marine Corps said it still plans to send jets to Britain for two air shows next month. Captain Richard Ulsh said flights of the Marine Corp's F-35 B-model that can land vertically had been suspended at bases in Florida, Arizona and Maryland, pending the investigation. "We will resume flying once we know more about the cause of the F-35A fire that occurred at Eglin AFB earlier this week," Ulsh said. "At present, there are no changes to our plans to debut the aircraft in the UK." The Air Force had planned to resume flights of the A-model jets at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday, but announced earlier that it would continue the flight ban "in the interest of safety," said 1st Lieutenant Hope Cronin, a spokeswoman for the Air Force 33rd Fighter Wing. Cronin had no further details on the nature or extent of the damage to the F-35A that had to abort a takeoff on Monday morning after a "significant fire" broke out in the rear of the plane. On Tuesday, Cronin said the Marine Corps' F-35 B-model jets and the Navy's C-model jets built for use on aircraft carriers, also did not fly on Monday or Tuesday due to storms. Navy commanders have also suspended flights at other bases, and Air Force officials are poised to follow suit, according to a defence official familiar with the situation. The incident has raised questions about U.S. plans to fly a group of three to four F-35 B-model jets to Britain later this month for the plane's highly anticipated international debut at two air shows, the Royal International Air Tatoo and the Farnborough air show, next month. The F-35A fire occurred in the rear part of the plane where the engine is located, but it was unclear whether the engine was involved. Defence officials have released no details about the possible cause or location of the fire. Lockheed and engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, have both said they are ready to help with the Air Force investigation. Lockheed is developing three models of the new warplane for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey and Canada. Japan, Israel and South Korea have also placed orders for the warplane. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown and Ken Wills)

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