Secretary Hagel got a chance to sit in the cockpit of an F-35 jet, and in the Air Force hangar of the 33rd, stood before an aircraft with his name painted on the side as he made brief remarks to about 100 military personnel. He called the F-35 a critical part of the future of the nation’s defense.
"This is as big a project, the F-35, that we have at the Department of Defense; we have a lot riding on this aircraft," said Sec. Hagel, who noted that the U.S. military and its eight partner countries have a lot invested in the $400 billion dollar jet.
During the visit, the Secretary met with training and maintenance crews involved with the F-35 fighter. The entire fleet of F-35s has been grounded, after one of the planes caught fire during takeoff last month on a runway at Eglin. No one was injured, but the incident marked the third time flights have been suspended since February.
In reference to the fire, Hagel said he was still confident in the F-35 platform, noting that no project of this magnitude has been without problems. But, he says the decision to allow resumption of flight operations is a matter of safety and won’t be rushed.
"I've said before, we're not gonna put the F-35 in the air, anywhere, until we know it's safe to fly. And, as to timing, I'll leave that up to the experts to come back with recommendations."
Those recommendations on lifting the order halting air operations may not come in time for some F-35 aircraft to flight at the Farnborough International Air Show in the U-K next week. But, Sec. Hagel says a safety investigation is on-going as part of the decision-making process.
The Safety Investigation Board process includes an analysis of the report from inspections, which were conducted over the weekend. But, Hagel says he was encouraged by the good report he got Thursday morning from F-35 pilots and maintenance crews.
First Lt. Hope Cronin, Chief of Public Affairs at the 33rd Fight Wing, says while the investigation continues, the F-35 crew is staying busy. They're spending more time in F-35 simulators and working on courseware review for new software to be put into the aircraft.
Currently, Eglin has 49 F-35 aircraft, including the very first Air Force variant flown to the base by Lt. Col. Smith, who's commander of the 33rd's Operations Support Squadron.
"What's exciting about (Thursday) was to have Sec. Hagel come in to Eglin and lay out in laymen's terms what the F-35 means to the defense strategy of the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and eight partner nations for the next 40-50 years," says Smith.
Again, as for when the F-35 fleet at Eglin and elsewhere will again ‘be cleared for takeoff,’ neither Sec. Hagel nor local Air Force officials could say. However, safety investigations in the Air Force typically last 30 days, and in this case started the week of the incident, which occurred on June 23rd.
Standing before an aircraft with his name on it, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared the F-35 a critical part of the future of the nation’s defense.
Hagel made the remarks during a visit to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base this Thursday morning. Hagel hosted a ‘troop talk’ with about 100 servicemen and women.
Earlier the Secretary met with training and maintenance crews involved with the F-35 fighter. The entire fleet of F-35s has been grounded, after one of them caught fire last month on a runway at Eglin.
But, Hagel stood fast in his support for the F-35 program. “I believe this aircraft is the future for our fighter aircraft for our services,” said Hagel, adding that the F-35 is among the biggest projects at the Department of Defense. “We’ve got a lot riding on this aircraft,” he said. Hagel also noted the eight international partners around the world, who have a lot invested in the F-35.
He went on to discuss issues with the F-35 aircraft. Although he didn’t specifically talk about the aircraft that caught fire last month, he offered assurances that safety is the first priority. “We’re not going to put aircraft in the air. We’re not going to ask anyone to risk their lives on any platform for any reason, unless we feel absolutely secure that it is safe.” In the aftermath of the fire, Hagel says the inspection has been completed and a further investigation of all the different dimensions of those inspections is taking place.
Secretary Hagel also referred to the importance of having quality people; capability, with cutting edge technology; and partnerships (eight countries ) that are all represented at Eglin.
Secretary Hagel also addressed DOD budget issues. Talking to the servicemen and women in the hangar, he said “We’re undergoing as “this is the biggest, most abrupt, steepest budget reduction process in your careers. Unfortunately, this is the world we’re dealing with.”
Hagel referred to the impact of the automatic budget cuts of the 2013 Sequestration on force readiness. He says a restructuring of the military is taking place to deal with a continuation of such reductions.
Hagel pledged to take care of the people in the U.S. military, noting the balance between proper compensation and readiness. “No leader of this institution, whether uniformed or non-uniformed, would ever send men and women into combat when you’re not ready. I won’t do it,” he said.