Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Six F-35s grounded due to ejection seat chute glitch.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon grounded six Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets at a California air base due to a problem with the parachutes packed under the pilot's ejection seat, two sources familiar with the issue told Reuters.

Additional F-35 jets being flown at a U.S. Navy air station in Maryland are not affected because they use a different ejection seat, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak on the record.

The grounding of the F-35 Air Force variant is more bad news for the $382 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which faces a third restructuring in three years after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week announced another slowdown in procurement to allow more time for development testing.

Panetta gave no details, but Reuters has quoted sources familiar with the budget plans as saying the Pentagon will postpone buying an additional 179 F-35 jets over the next five years, pushing their procurement off until after fiscal 2017.

Richard Aboulafia, defense analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said of the parachute problem, "There's a perception that they're moving too fast on production before ironing out all of the problems, and this is going to reinforce that perception."

The affected parachutes, manufactured by a privately owned British company, Martin Baker, were improperly folded and must be adjusted before the aircraft can resume test flights at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, said the sources.

The company also needs to swap out parachutes on F-35 jets at a Florida air base where the Air Force hopes to start training flights this summer, according to the sources.

No comment was immediately available from Lockheed or the Pentagon's F-35 program office.

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