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U.S. approves limited flights for F-35 fighters

An F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter takes off on a training sortie at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in this March 6, 2012 file photo.
CREDIT: REUTERS/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO/RANDY GON/HANDOUT
An F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter takes off on a training sortie at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in this March 6, 2012 file photo. CREDIT: REUTERS/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO/RANDY GON/HANDOUT

By Andrea Shalal

FARNBOROUGH England (Reuters) - U.S. military officials have approved limited flights for Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets, improving the chances of the newest U.S. combat jet making its international debut before potential buyers this week.

The F-35, the world's most expensive weapons project with a price tag of about $400 billion, has been grounded since the massive failure of the Pratt & Whitney engine on a U.S. Air Force F-35 plane at a Florida air base on June 23.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Tuesday U.S. Air Force and Navy officials had granted the radar-evading jet a limited flight clearance that required engine inspections and carried restrictions on its flights. No details about the restrictions were immediately available.

Kirby said the lifting of a fleetwide grounding order was encouraging, and U.S. officials remained hopeful that the F-35 could make its international debut at this week's Farnborough air show, but no decision had been made.

The jet's failure to appear at a big military air show in Britain last week and its absence from the first days of the Farnborough event in southern England have been a blow for U.S. officials and their international partners, who were hoping to showcase the capabilities of the new multi-role fighter.

Global orders for the F-35 are expected to exceed 3,000, with Italy, Turkey, Canada and Australia among the U.S. allies planning to purchase the plane.

Lockheed and Pratt welcomed the U.S. decision to lift the grounding order, but referred all questions to the Pentagon's F-35 program office.

Matthew Bates, spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, said the company had great confidence in the F135 engine it builds for the new fighter jet and had worked closely with the military to return the jet to flying status.

"It would be great for the jets to come to the Farnborough Air Show so the audience here can see the capabilities the F-35 brings to the U.S. and our partners," Bates said.

SAFETY IS PRIORITY

Top executives from the biggest contractors involved in the F-35 program have traveled to Britain for the plane's foreign debut, which had appeared in doubt until Tuesday's news.

Four U.S. Marine Corps jets are waiting to take off for Britain from a Maryland air base as soon as they are cleared to do so. Officials are studying the flight restrictions to determine if the jets could fly to Britain.

The planes were slated to follow a route relatively close to the U.S. and Canadian coast, up past Greenland before heading to Europe, rather than a direct flight across the Atlantic Ocean, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Kirby gave no details about the restrictions and engine inspections, but said they would remain in effect until the root cause of the June 23 engine failure was identified and corrected. "Safety remains the overriding priority," he said.

Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan had told reporters on Monday that U.S. officials were "not giving up" on trying to bring the F-35 to Britain.

Sources familiar with the matter said the decision to lift the grounding order was made at a high-level meeting on Monday, and reflected growing evidence the engine failure was a one-off event and not due to a systemic or fundamental design flaw.

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told reporters on Monday that no similar problems had been found on any of the other 98 engines in service, and underscored that the program was still in the development stage when technical problems are meant to be found and fixed.

Pratt President Paul Adams told Reuters in an interview at the air show that the F135 engine failure, and a separate incident in May involving its CSeries commercial engine, were unrelated and did not point to a larger problem at the company.

Adams, who took over as president in January, said it had been a "challenging few weeks," but said both engines were still going through the developmental stage that is aimed at flushing out problems and resolving them.

(Editing by Mark Potter)

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