F-35 Lightning II's Worst Nightmare Turns Out to Be…Lightning

With a price tag of between $115 million and $198 million per plane and an estimated program cost of a $1.5 trillion, the fifth-generation stealth combat jet has faced an endless string of costly setbacks in recent years, with the US temporarily grounding its entire fleet of F-35s last month in the wake of a crash.

Last week, Military.com reported that two airmen at a base in Florida had suffered a brush with death after being "indirectly" struck by lightning while clearing an F-35's flight line ahead of an expected storm.

Commenting on the incident, Task & Purpose explained that the Air Force has been forced to develop an anti-lightning contingency, and that the Marine Corps, which operate their own version of the plane, have also voiced concerns about the Lightning II's ability to handle lightning strikes.

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In August, the Marines put out a bid for portable rods to attract lightning away from the planes parked at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in southern Japan. The Corps justified the bid by explaining that the F-35, "as a composite type aircraft, does not provide inherent passive lightning protection."

Indeed, unlike traditional aircraft, which have metal skin, the F-35 has a composite skin with radar-absorbent materials aimed at improving its stealth characteristics built in. The advanced stealth feature poses certain risks, however, including the plane's vulnerability to lightning strikes.

In 2012, a Pentagon report found that the F-35 would not be safe flying within 25 miles (40 km) of a thunderstorm due to fears that it could be damaged or destroyed by lightning. Specifically, the report identified "deficiencies" in the plane's fuel tank inerting system which could cause explosions if the plane is struck by lightning.

Lockheed Martin has promised to resolve the problem, with the issue reputedly fixed on aircraft for the US military. Other buyers of the F-35 have not been as fortunate, however, with Australian F-35As reportedly continuing to avoid flights around thunderstorms over the fuel tank issue. This summer, British defence officials demonstrated open annoyance after four F-35s destined for the UK were delayed from flying across the Atlantic Ocean over "adverse weather conditions."

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This summer, a report to Congress by the US Government Accountability Office found that the F-35 programme continues to have some 966 flaws, including over 100 critical defects which can injure or kill pilots or otherwise jeopardise the aircraft's security. More serious defects included visibility problems for the special helmet-mounted display, ejector seat issues causing neck injuries, a faulty oxygen-supply system, and a fragile aerial refuelling probe.

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