First U.S. Air Force F-35 Pilot Training Sortie Cut Short

The U.S. Air Force’s first pilot training flight of its new F-35 jet was cut short by a possible fuel leak, the service said today.

The possible leak reduced today’s scheduled 90-minute flight of the Lockheed Martin Corp. jet to 15 minutes, Colonel Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, said in a statement.

The pilot ended the flight due to an “in-flight emergency,” according to the statement.

Development test pilots have been flying the jets at Edwards Air Force Base in California equipped with instruments monitored by ground-control personnel, who alert them of performance flaws as they fly. That’s different from the so-called “uninstrumented” flight training that’s beginning at Eglin with pilots experienced on other aircraft.

“Our first sortie is truly a milestone,” Toth said of the initiation of pilot training, which had been delayed for months as the service responded to concerns from the Pentagon’s testing office. “Unfortunately, things happen.”

The pilot “did the exact right thing in returning the jet back to Eglin,” Toth said.

The pilot testing was to have started as early as November. It was put on hold after the Pentagon’s director of test and evaluation said in October that the Air Force must delay training combat pilots until testers worked through technical issues and the service resolved potential safety “shortfalls” that risked a “serious mishap.”

Michael Gilmore, the director of operational test and evaluation, said in an Oct. 21 memo that there were “serious concerns” with commencing initial training at Eglin.

The Air Force said in starting the training flights that it had acted on Gilmore’s concerns.

(Updates with in-flight emergency in third paragraph.)
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