A 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.