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Lockheed's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet reaches long-awaited milestone

F-35 over Fort Worth. Photo courtesy of Lockheed

Christian Davenport
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
FORT WORTH, Texas — It's been a bad few weeks for the F-35 Lightning II. First, one of the jet's engines caught fire on the runway, causing the fleet to be grounded. Then it missed its international debut at a pair of British air shows.

But on Thursday, Pentagon and industry officials celebrated a bit of good news at Lockheed Martin's aeronautics headquarters here: the first two of the 72 planes Australia has ordered rolled off the assembly line and will be ready for flight soon.

The completion of the two planes marked a milestone for defense officials eager to both woo international customers for the next-generation fighter jet and to quell fears after the fire and grounding.

The ceremony, featuring American and Australian dignitaries, also served as a symbol of unity and continued commitment to the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, despite the recent setbacks.

Speaking before a couple of hundred attendees in a massive hangar on the flight line of the aeronautics facility, Mathias Cormann, the Australian finance minister, said his country supported the F-35 program for many reasons more than a decade ago and that those reasons "remain as valid today."

Air Marshall Geoff Brown, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, told reporters after the ceremony that he was "very confident" in the fighter jet and was undeterred by the fire.

"In any development project, you're going to have issues," he said.

The engine fire occurred June 23 as a pilot prepared for take off at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Officials have said they determined that the cause was not systematic and lifted the flying ban, with restrictions, a few weeks later. But the F-35 did not make it to the Royal International Air Tattoo or the Farnborough International Airshow this month and show off, for the first time, overseas.

The no-show was a disappointment for a program that for years went wildly over budget and behind schedule but which has in recent years regained its footing. And it was a missed opportunity to lure foreign buyers at a time when some foreign governments are weighing their purchases of the aircraft.

Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government are hoping for more international sales, which would eventually drive down the per-plane cost — estimated at about $110 million per plane for the Air Force variant but which could fall below $80 million by the end of the decade, officials say.

And Lockheed officials said they remain confident in those sales.

"The effects of the engine investigation really won't have an effect on our revenue," Lockheed executive vice president and chief financial officer Bruce Tanner said in a conference call with analysts Tuesday. "International customers we spoke to believe this is an issue that will be resolved, will be resolved in fairly short order and will not have an influence on their decision."

Still, there continue to be reverberations from the fire. The Senate appropriations defense subcommittee recently urged the Pentagon to look into the possibility of acquiring an alternative engine for the F-35.

Officials from Pratt & Whitney, the engine's manufacturer, have said that is unnecessary because their engine "continues to perform exceptionally well."

Incidents such as the fire are "part of the normal risk reduction process to ensure flawless performance when the aircraft is operational," the company said in a recent statement. ​

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