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Raptor Tests Suspended After Crash

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page E01

The Air Force suspended testing of its Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor fighter jets yesterday, a day after one of the stealth aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The pilot, who was conducting a training mission, ejected safely and was unharmed in the crash near Las Vegas on Monday afternoon, according to Air Force officials. It marked the first loss of a non-prototype version of the F/A-22 Raptor, designed to replace the F-15 as the nation's most powerful air-to-air fighter, according to Air Force and industry officials.

The Air Force is looking to complete testing of the F/A-22 Raptor, hoping to have a squadron ready for combat next year. (Ralph Radford -- AP)

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The accident comes as the Air Force this month completes critical testing of the plane's ability to meet key military requirements. If the plane passes, the Air Force is expected to seek authority to order Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. to begin full-rate production, manufacturing up to 32 planes a year. The service hopes to declare the first squadron of aircraft ready to enter combat next year.

The Raptor, one of Lockheed's premier programs, has been under pressure for years with critics saying that it was designed for a Cold War threat the military no longer faces and that it has limited applicability to the low-tech fight being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the $72 billion program has fallen behind schedule, and the price per aircraft has escalated from an estimated $119 million in 1992 to $258 million, including research and development costs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Air Force and Lockheed executives have defended the program, describing it as essential to providing an overwhelming response to future military threats. The Air Force has said it needs 381 of the aircraft but can afford only about 270. "We expect the F/A-22 to transform warfare and provide the air dominance needed to ensure . . . freedom of movement for all joint and coalition forces," Air Force spokesman Doug Karas said.

Air Force accident and safety committees will investigate the crash, the second at Nellis since November, said spokeswoman Capt. Maureen Schumann. The last crash involved a Navy F/A-18, she said. The Air Force lost nine aircraft in fiscal 2004, which ended in September. Those incidents resulted in two fatalities.

The crash occurred at 3:45 p.m. Pacific time (6:45 p.m. EST), Schumann said.

Lockheed has delivered 31 of the planes to the Air Force, including eight to Nellis and others for testing and training at Edwards Air Force Base in California and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Flights of all types of aircraft, including the F/A-22, were suspended yesterday at Nellis. Tyndall and Edwards are also "doing a safety stand-down" for the F/A-22, said Karas, the Air Force spokesman. "This is a precautionary stand-down. . . . It's doubtful they would be grounded for the entire length of the investigation."

"The Air Force will investigate the accident and apply what is learned to improve flight safety of the F/A-22 Raptor," Karas said. "There should not be a long-term impact to the F/A-22 program."

But the timing of the crash "is unusually bad as it empowers F/A-22 opponents to argue the plane requires more testing before entering full production," Heidi Wood, industry analyst for Morgan Stanley, said in a research note yesterday.

If the accident was caused by a nonmechanical mishap, like a pilot error or impact with a bird, it will not have a significant impact on the program, said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Tom Jurkowsky, a Lockheed spokesman, said the company "will fully support the Air Force's investigation."

Lockheed lost $1.48 a share yesterday to close at $57.60 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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