Air Force clears F-35 for flight while Marines ground fighter for software glitch

F-35s at Luke AFB resume flying operations after an 11 day pause in operations. (56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Amid ongoing controversy with the defense department’s F-35 program, two services are taking different approaches to issues with the fifth-generation fighter.

Grounded since June 9, Thursday the Air Force cleared the aircraft for flight, with caveats, saying pilots have been instructed to “avoid altitudes” were hypoxia-like symptoms occurred in five incidents during the course of a month. ARS Technica reports the Air Force and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) convened a “formal action team” to understand and mitigate risks.

ARS Technica reports thus far, the team has only managed to rule out a number of “specific concerns,” including aircraft maintenance issues and procedures surrounding pilots’ life-support equipment.

While the Air Force is ordering its aircraft returned to service, the Marine Corps announced the same day it would “temporarily suspend” flight operations for 14 F-35B fighters due to software issues.

CNN reports the Corps decided to suspend flight operations after “anomalies” were discovered in a recent Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) software upgrade, the Marine Corps said in a statement.

“There is nothing wrong with the performance or safety of the aircraft itself, but it is imperative that we ensure the ground-based ALIS system is working properly before flight operations continue,” Maj. Kurt Stahl, a spokesman for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, told CNN in email.

“The F-35B is a highly capable aircraft with an excellent test and developmental safety record,” Stahl added for CNN.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and frequent critic of the F-35’s development challenges said he is “concerned” about the suspension.

“I was concerned to learn that the Marine Corps has suspended F-35B operations at MCAS Yuma due to problems with the aircraft’s Autonomic Logistics Information System,” said Sen. John McCain. “I am in close communication with the Marine Corps and Joint Program Office as they work to identify the root cause of these issues and resolve them as quickly as possible,” he said according to CNN.

The Air Force says the F-35’s complex challenges requires critical thinking to get the aircraft back into fully mission capable status.

Brigadier General Brook Leonard, commander of the 56th Fighter Wing—which oversees the training squadrons for US and foreign military F-35A pilots training at Luke AFB, Az., said in a statement announcing the Air Force’s flight ban, “our active duty, reserve, and international team have worked tirelessly to better understand the physiological events.” He said that resolving the threat to pilots is a “complex challenge that necessitates multidimensional solutions, across a series of steps to get back to a full operating capability.” However, Leonard added that the Air Force was confident that the temporary restrictions would allow F-35A training to continue safely.

CNN reports the services’ two suspensions represent a setback for the $400 billion F-35 program, a long-delayed and over-budget weapons system that’s become the Pentagon’s most expensive in history.

The Marine Corps F-35B, which is capable of vertical landing, was the first of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants to be declared combat-ready in 2015, and has since been deployed overseas. The Air Force’s F-35A was declared combat ready last year. The Navy’s variant, the F-35C, is scheduled to be combat ready in 2018, according to CNN.

As both services attempt to work through hardware issues with the F-35 airframe, ARS Technica reports hardware is not the only challenge for the Air Force.

ARS Technica points out the Air Force continues to face a growing shortage of pilots.

For this week’s Paris Air Show demonstration, ARS Technica reports, the F-35A was flown not by an Air Force pilot but by a Lockheed Martin pilot — attributing it in part to the Air Force’s limited number of pilots and aircraft.

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