By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Marine Corps pilots will soon begin training flights on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at a Florida air base, underscoring the service's confidence in the new radar-evading fighter jet, two people familiar with the plans said.
Lockheed Martin Corp has delivered 10 F-35B model jets -- which can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter -- to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle.
Test pilots began preliminary orientation flights of the F-35B at the air base in May and have completed nearly 200 flights to date, but the flights been limited in their scope and speed. For instance, they have not yet been able to conduct vertical landings at the air base.
Up to now, training of future pilots for the F-35B model has been confined to simulators and the classroom. The military needs to train a cadre of pilots and maintainers to fly and repair the jets before it can start using them for operations.
The decision to move ahead with formal training flights will allow future F-35B pilots -- most of whom are already highly trained to fly other aircraft -- to take to the skies, according to the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The Marine Corps' decision to proceed with training flights amounts to a vote of confidence in the embattled F-35 fighter program, which has been restructured three times in recent years, slowing production and delaying the plane's operational use.
Marine Corps leaders, increasingly concerned about replacing their current fleet of aging fighters, decided to skip the formal evaluation of the plane's operational utility that the Air Force is completing before proceeding with its own pilot training flights at the base.
"The Marines are determined to get this plane into the field as soon as it can be safely accomplished. They don't want to be slowed down by bureaucratic obstacles," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank.
The Marine Corps has a more urgent need for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter given the advanced age of its Harrier jump jets and older-model Boeing Co F/A-18 fighters, he said, adding, "They really need a new plane in the field."
Air Force and Marine Corps F-35 pilot training was initially slated to begin about a year ago, but was delayed by the Pentagon after its chief tester, Michael Gilmore, raised concerns about the maturity of the new plane and its software.
Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, declined to comment on Wednesday on the Marine Corps' decision to skip the operational utility evaluation, according to his spokeswoman.
Lockheed is developing the multirole stealth F-35 for the U.S. military and eight international partners at a projected cost of around $396 billion.
Britain's BAE Systems is a key contractor on the project. Other subcontractors include Northrop Grumman Corp and United Technologies Corp.
The Marines are likely to be the first of the U.S. military services to declare them ready for "initial operational capability" because they do not plan to wait for more sophisticated software upgrades required by the other services.
The Navy's F-35C or carrier variant of the new fighter jet also recently completed testing of a redesigned arresting hook at a facility in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
One source familiar with the tests said they had proven largely successful, although there was still more work needed to ensure the jet could safely land on an aircraft carrier.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)