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No decision on whether grounded F-35s will be ready for air show: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No decision has been made yet on whether to send a group of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Britain this week for the plane's international debut at two air shows after the fleet was grounded in response to an engine fire, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Most of the 97 Lockheed Martin planes had been inspected by Monday. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said "a decision will be coming pretty soon."

Four Marine Corps F-35Bs, which can take off from a short runway and land vertically, were in southern Maryland ready to travel to Britain, and a similar British F-35B was at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida ready to go.

The F-35 had been scheduled to make its international debut at two air shows in England: the Farnborough International Airshow and the Royal International Air Tattoo. Appearances at the shows would give potential foreign customers a closer look at the fighter jet.

"They're certainly mindful that the air show is beginning, but I don't think that we want to rush to a decision here," Kirby said.

"We'd be disappointed if we weren't able to take it to Farnborough," he added, noting that it was something "we were looking forward to."

"That said, safety has got to be priority No. 1 and nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened," Kirby said.

The entire fleet of F-35s was grounded last week in response to an engine fire in an Air Force version of the plane in late June at Eglin, home to many of the planes.

The findings from the inspection of the jets' Pratt & Whitney engines were to be examined by senior defense officials to determine under what circumstances the fleet would be able to resume flights. Pratt & Whitney is a unit of United Technologies Corp.

Kirby said the incident had not shaken the Pentagon's confidence in the aircraft, which will ultimately replace many of the planes in the U.S. military's inventory.

He said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would visit Eglin this week with the message that despite the setback, "we are 100 percent still committed to the JSF."

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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