An F-35B Joint Strike Fighter shot itself in the skies above Arizona earlier this month, doing at least $2.5 million in damage. The pilot was unharmed and successfully landed the jet. The Pentagon isn’t quite sure how or why the jet shot itself and the incident is still under investigation.
As first reported by Military.com, the F-35 was flying in a training mission at night on March 12 at the Yuman Range Complex in Arizona when it shot itself. This particular F-35 has an externally mounted gatling gun that fires a 25mm armor piercing high explosive round. Sometime during the training, the gun discharged and the round exploded, damaging the underside of the jet.
The pilot landed the jet and a Navy investigation first classified the accident as Class A. Class A accidents are the most severe, it’s a classification used when someone in the weapon dies, the whole jet is lost, or the property damage is $2.5 million or greater. "The mishap did not result in any injury to personnel, and an investigation of the incident is currently taking place," Marine Corps spokesperson Captain Andrew Wood told Military.com.
Wood later told Motherboard that the Navy determined the accident to be Class C, meaning it caused between $60,000 and $600,000 in damage.
The F-35 is the most expensive weapon ever built. Just one of the B variants, flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, costs around $135.8 million. The total cost for the entire F-35 program is estimated to be more than a $1 trillion over the course of the program's lifetime.
The expensive jet has been plagued by problems since Lockheed Martin began manufacturing them in 2006. In May 2020, an F-35 costing $175 million landed too hard and “rolled, caught fire, and was completely destroyed,” according to an Air Force accident report. The accident report gave several reasons for the crash, including the F-35’s specialty helmet and its inability to deliver oxygen properly to the pilot.
In 2014, an F-35 caught fire while preparing for take off. In 2016, an F-35 caught fire while it was in the air. In 2019, journalists uncovered a number of additional times that the F-35 has simply caught fire at random. There’s a design flaw in the F-35’s engine that can cause fuel to leak and catch fire. Test pilots raised concerns over the flaw as early as 2007. The F-35 just catches fire sometimes.
As problems with the jet have increased, its costs have become hard to ignore. The Air Force recently admitted its looking for a new jet that isn’t the F-35. On March 5, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that buying more F-35s was like “throwing money down the rat-hole” and that the Pentagon should cut its losses and abandon the program.
Update: Motherboard has updated this story to reflect the new damage classification.