The F-35 Lightning fighter can’t stand up to real lightning, so Marines ordered specialty rods to keep them from going up in flames

Two F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan. Cpl. Aaron Henson/US Marine Corps
  • Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan earlier this month ordered over a dozen specialty lightning rods to protect the F-35s on base.
  • A lightning strike to the aircraft could fry the onboard systems – or, assuming some concerns over non-inert fuel tanks have yet to be addressed, start a fire or cause the aircraft to explode.

The F-35 may be named the Lightning II, but at least one version of it needs specialty rods to ensure it can survive actual lightning, which could cook the aircraft’s systems, start a fire, or even blow it up.

Earlier this month, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan requested 14 F-35 portable lightning rods from LBA Technology in Greenville, North Carolina The Drive reported Wednesday, citing the contracting notice.

“The F-35 as a composite type aircraft does not provide inherent passive lightning protection,” the justification for the order says, adding that the rods should protect the aircraft 24/7 when parked in the open or whenever lightning is forecast.

Mobile and standing at a height of 50 feet, the rods should be able to withstand a lightning strike with a magnitude up to 200 kiloamperes, survive winds up to 120 mph, and hold up against rainfall at a rate of 1.4 inches per hour and ice accretion up to 3 inches, the request says.

Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni last year became the first US overseas base to operate the F-35 when Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) was deployed there with a collection of stealth fighters.

The F-35B Lightning II used by the US Marine Corps is an impressive fifth-generation fighter and the world’s first operational supersonic short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft, but even it is no match for the full force of Mother Nature.

The Drive noted that if Lockheed Martin has not yet finished the process of shielding the aircraft’s onboard systems from lightning, a strike could cripple the Autonomic Logistics Information System supporting aircraft operations, making the fighter unusable until it can be repaired.

And because rendering the fuel system inert after the plane is back on the ground is a challenge, it’s possible that lightning could strike a non-inert plane and ignite the oxygen and fuel vapors built up inside the tank, causing an explosion or fire.

The Drive notes that this has been a particularly serious issue for the Marines’ jump-jet fighter. A 2015 Department of Defence report said the F-35B did “not maintain residual inerting after flight for the required interval of 12 hours, which is a lightning protection requirement.”

The problem, however, existed before that report.

“Tests of the fuel tank inerting system in 2009 identified deficiencies in maintaining the required lower fuel tank oxygen levels to prevent fuel tank explosions,” a 2012 Pentagon report said, adding that the aircraft was lacking the “required levels of protection from threat and from fuel tank explosions induced by lightning.”

Recent reports have suggested that the F-35 program has made progress on the matter, but it remains unclear whether all the deficiencies have been fixed.

Over the years, F-35 operators have tread cautiously when faced with bad weather, occasionally cancelling operational training and exercises. Still, The Drive pointed out, the new rods requested for the F-35s in Japan could simply be “alternative lightning protection strategies.”