Air Force Pilot Was Flying F-35B in Crash at Kirtland, in Stable Condition

The F-35B that crashed May 28 in New Mexico was flown by an Air Force pilot, the F-35 Joint Program Office and the Air Force said. The pilot ejected at low altitude and suffered serious injuries, but is in stable condition, according to the Air Force.

The loss of the test aircraft exacerbates a shortage of such jets while the Pentagon is struggling to expedite test of key F-35 capabilities, including the TR-3 hardware and software upgrade.

The crash occurred at 1:48 pm local time, immediately outside the fenced perimeter of the Albuquerque International Sunport/Kirtland Air Force Base airfield. The aircraft rapidly lost altitude shortly after takeoff and seemingly pancaked onto scrub desert. The resulting fire was quickly extinguished by Air Force and airport emergency crews, but the condition of the aircraft suggests it will be declared a total loss. Two people injured on the ground received treatment near the scene and were released.

Due to the investigation now underway, the JPO could not provide details on the pilot’s identity or experience other than to say the person was checked out on the F-35B and qualified to fly the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, which is flown operationally by Marine Corps pilots. The Air Force pilot was flying the jet on behalf of the Defense Contract Management Agency.

An image of the aircraft just prior to the crash and circulated on social media show it to be apparently nose-high for a STOVL takeoff. It was only 50 or so feet off the ground, raising considerable dust on the runway overrun below. It was in full STOVL configuration, with the dorsal lift fan door fully open, engine exhaust ventral doors open, and elevons fully deflected. The rear engine exhaust, difficult to see in the image, may have been in transition from STOVL to conventional flight mode.

The accident bears a few similarities to the crash of an F-35B at Lockheed Martin’s facilities at Fort Worth, Texas, in December 2022, in which that mishap aircraft was also being operated in STOVL mode by an Air Force pilot flying the jet for DCMA. In that accident, the aircraft descended vertically at an excessive rate of speed, bounced, touched the runway with the nosewheel, spun around, came down sideways and collapsed one of the main landing gear. The pilot then ejected at zero altitude but survived with minor injuries. The aircraft remained largely intact.  

The 2022 mishap resulted in the JPO grounding some F-35s and pausing deliveries of new aircraft for three months. The grounding was lifted and deliveries resumed after a fix was developed by Pratt & Whitney for a harmonic resonance issue with the type’s F135 engine.

A former F-35 test pilot told Air & Space Forces Magazine that both combined test force pilots and DCMA pilots are typically qualified to fly all three F-35 variants, which include the conventional takeoff F-35A model, the STOVL F-35B, and the carrier-capable F-35C.

The three airplanes “are similar in the way [they] fly,” the test pilot said. “With the B [version], you simply move a lever, and then you’re in STOVL mode, and the controls then do their STOVL moves.” He said it was not possible to tell from an image taken just before the crash what was happening with the main exhaust, which rotates from downward to rearward in the transition from vertical to horizontal flight. But he said the jet should have been at a higher altitude by that point in a STOVL takeoff and the jet’s attitude seemed high for the configuration.       

The JPO said the aircraft involved in the May 29 crash was a Technology Refresh 2-configured airplane, which was delivered in September 2023. Due to delays in testing the TR-3 configuration, the government has not accepted any new-build TR-3 airplanes since July 2023, so the aircraft involved was one of the last TR-2s built and delivered.

The JPO could not immediately say what kind of testing the mishap aircraft was earmarked for, but an industry source noted that the TR-3 is only one of several test campaigns now underway with the F-35, although “it is the priority.”

A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said the jet was being transferred from Fort Worth, Texas, where the company’s F-35 factory is located, to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for modifications and testing. Neither the JPO nor Lockheed described the modifications it was to receive. The stop at Kirtland was made to refuel.

“This was a U.S. government-owned-and-operated aircraft that was being flown by a government pilot who safely ejected,” Lockheed Martin said in a press statement.

“The aircraft was a test jet equipped with Technology Refresh 2 and was transferring to Edwards AFB for additional test equipment modification. Safety is our priority, and we will follow appropriate investigation protocols,” the Lockheed spokesperson said.

“The cause of the crash is being reviewed by an Air Force Interim Safety Board,” an Air Force  spokesperson said.

The House Armed Services Committee recently upped the number of new test F-35s it would authorize in the fiscal 2025 defense bill from six to nine, as the existing test fleet is too small in number to handle the demand for F-35 testing and is hard-pressed to handle pop-up discoveries. The loss of an F-35 test asset will only exacerbate that situation, as the new jets, if fully authorized and appropriated, will not arrive for several years.     

Some 75 TR-3 jets—which have new cockpit displays, a much more powerful processor, and new software—are completed but in storage, awaiting completion of TR-3 testing or a decision by the JPO to allow them to operate with a “truncated” version of the TR-3 software. Lockheed has said that it doesn’t expect that TR-3 jets will be cleared to fly until the third quarter of this year at the very earliest.

The JPO has said that while the F-35 partners and FMS customers have agreed to accept the “truncated” version to get deliveries moving while TR-3 is being fully vetted, it doesn’t know when that version will get the green light. Lt. Gen. Michael J. Schmidt, the F-35 program executive officer, wants to see more stability in the “TR-3-minus” software before going ahead with deliveries.

The Government Accountability Office recently said the TR-3 jets will likely take a year to deliver, as it considers Lockheed’s plan to deliver them at a rate of one per business day as too optimistic.

The most recent crash of an F-35—also a B model, Marine Corps jet—happened in South Carolina in September 2023.