Two F-35 fighter jets caught fire during training flights within a month of each other this fall, according to Reuters Business Insider. In September, a U.S. Air Force F-35-A caught fire as soon as the pilot started the engine. The following month, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighter’s internal weapons bay caught fire while in flight. The pilots were unharmed in both mishaps. Even with these recent, back-to-back incidents, both the Air Force and Marine Corps have declared the F-35 fighter jet “combat ready” and have begun integrating it into their squadrons.
This could be a discouragingly familiar refrain. In 1991 the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) began testing the V-22 Ospry. The hybrid tilt-rotor aircraft was intended to function as both a helicopter and an airplane. The two aircrafts have completely different functions, which is a key reason the Ospry does not perform either function well. It has claimed 37 lives including 30 who died during testing accidents from 1991 to 2000. Despite the “intense Congressional attack” following the deaths of 23 Marines in two crashes of test flights in 2000, the DOD officially deployed the V-22 in 2007.
The most recent V-22 crash happened in May 2015 at Bellows Air Force Station in Hawaii – killing 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Matthew Determan and 24-year-old Cpl. Joshua Barron, both Marines. Earlier this year, Determan’s family hired the Beasley Allen Law firm and Honolulu lawyer Melvin Y. Agena to represent them in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging the aircraft is dangerous and defective. Still, the DOD stands by the aircraft.
Similarly, the F-35 has its critics and problems, too. According to Reuters Business Insider, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester noted in a July 2016 memo that the F-35 program was “not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver.” The fifth generation fighter presents stealth and advanced electronic attack and communications systems, but has been plagued throughout development with electrical problems, software issues, and glitches with its advanced helmet system.
In June 2014, the first F-35 engine fire occurred while one fighter was preparing to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Following the incident, the New York Times reported that the fleet was grounded for the second time in a month. A Popular Mechanics article explained that the cause of the 2014 incident was fixed and the entire fleet was retrofitted to address the problem.
The cause of the latest F-35 fire, which occurred in October, remains undetermined. However, Popular Mechanics reports that investigators believe the September fire “started after strong tailwinds redirected heat from the fighter’s engine during startup procedures.” Although both 2016 incidents remain under investigation, there has not been a fleet-wide grounding.
The U.S. Congress has also been critical of the fighter’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corporation (Lockheed). In April, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the F-35 program. A CNN report quoted from hearing testimony that it is the “largest and most expensive acquisition program in the history of the Department of Defense.” During the hearing, committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), criticized the numerous delays, design problems and spiraling costs, which has almost doubled the initial estimate, which currently is nearly $400 billion for 2,457 fighters. Expressing frustration, McCain questioned the rationale of investing in a program that is not likely to match the defense capabilities of the nation’s potential opponents such as China and Russia.
There is much at stake with the F-35 program. However, as former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagle said following the first F-35 fire in 2014, “the safety of our military men and women should remain our top priority (as reported by Breaking Defense).” Repeating the mistakes made with other technological advancements in the military, such as the V-22 Ospry, will result in more unnecessary deaths of those serving our country.
If you need more information on this subject contact Mike Andrews, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Product’s Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com. Mike handles aviation litigation for the firm.
Sources: NBC News, Righting Injustice, Reuters Business Insider, New York Times, Popular Mechanics, CNN, Breaking Defense
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