Fighter Jet News

F-35 Lightning II News

F-35B crashes in New Mexico; pilot suffers serious injuries

May 29, 2024 (by Lieven Dewitte) - An F-35B Lightning II en route from Lockheed’s Fort Worth, facility, to Edwards Air Force Base, California, crashed after a refuelling stop at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico on Tuesday at 14.00h.

USMC F-35B #170052 has just transitioned from VTOL mode when on a local test flight from NAS Fort Worth on August 19th, 2022. [Photo by Keith Snyder]

The F-35 (BF-139) was being flown by a Defense Contract Management Agency pilot, who safely ejected but was transported to a local hospital with serious injuries.

The jet was a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant and was one of very few F-35 developmental test aircraft. Originally accepted by the government in September 2023, it was equipped with Technology Refresh 2 and was transferred to Edwards AFB for additional test equipment modification.

The loss of a test aircraft is bad news for the F-35 program, which is already strapped for testing capacity as it tries to finish a new hardware and software package for the jet, called Technology Refresh 3. Lawmakers added more test F-35s in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act to help handle testing and evaluation for the upcoming Block 4 upgrade.

According to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the program has faced delays because of its small developmental testing fleet.

Testers “predicted that once software deliveries for TR-3 and Block 4 capabilities are back on schedule, the current testing fleet could face significant challenges in meeting testing demands,” the report said.

Deliveries of new F-35s have been on hold since July because of software problems with the TR-3 upgrade. The new jets are stacking up at Lockheed’s facilities, waiting for TR-3 to be finished.

Another Marine Corps F-35B crashed in September 2023. The jet went missing near Charleston, South Carolina after the pilot ejected safely and the plane kept flying for 60 miles. Authorities eventually found the jet’s debris a few hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston.

In late December 2022, an F-35B crashed on the runway of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth during a vertical landing attempt. That pilot, an Air Force major doing tests on behalf of the Defense Contract Management Agency, was sent to the hospital and was later released after healing from minor injuries.

That incident prompted F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office officials to ground some models of the F-35 and pause deliveries of the aircraft. It also prompted them in February 2023 to identify a "rare system phenomenon" in F135 engines, which they noticed during inspections. They resumed deliveries the following month.

While the exact cost of the aircraft varies, the average flyaway cost of a new Marine Corps F-35 is $109 million, according to JPO.

When considering the number of flight hours the F-35 program has accumulated since they started flying back in 2006, the crashes are relatively rare.