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US Air Force extends ban on F-35A flights from Florida air base

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is extending a temporary ban on flights of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 A-model jets from a Florida air base while officials investigate a fire that damaged one of the aircraft on Monday.

The Air Force had planned to resume flights of the A-model jets at Eglin Air Force Base on Wednesday, but decided to continue the flight ban "in the interest of safety," said 1st Lieutenant Hope Cronin, a spokeswoman for the Air Force 33rd Fighter Wing, which trains F-35 pilots.

Cronin had no further details on the nature or extent of the damage to the F-35A that had to abort a takeoff on Monday morning after a "significant fire" broke out in the rear of the plane.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 program office, said the halt in flights from Eglin had not affected F-35 jets at other locations.

On Tuesday, Cronin said F-35 B-model jets that can land vertically, and the C-model jets built for use on aircraft carriers, also did not fly on Monday or Tuesday due to storms. Flights of those jets were also halted at the base on Wednesday, although no formal suspension notice was posted, according to two defense officials.

The incident has raised questions about whether a group of F-35 B-model jets will be able to fly to Britain in coming days for the plane's international debut at two air shows.

The F-35A fire occurred in the rear part of the plane where the engine is located, but it was unclear whether the engine was involved. Engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, has said only that it was ready to help with the Air Force investigation.

Lockheed is developing three models of the new warplane for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey and Canada. Japan, Israel and South Korea have also placed orders for the warplane.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown)

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