By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of F-15 fighter jets amid serious safety concerns after a crash in Missouri on Friday. Officials believe the aging plane may have disintegrated in the air.
Top Air Force officials said yesterday that the F-15 jets will be available only for "mission-critical" uses, such as for emergencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, adding that the more than 700 aircraft in the fleet will largely go unused in coming days as the Air Force considers safety inspections for each plane. Commanders said the aircraft will be on "ground alert" at bases in the Middle East and that other planes will be used for regular patrols and bombing runs in support of the wars.
First produced in the mid-1970s and long considered the premier air-to-air fighter jet in the U.S. arsenal, the F-15 has become a target for retirement, with Air Force officials arguing that the plane is too old to take the stresses of maneuvers at twice the speed of sound. Douglas Birkey, deputy director for government relations at the Air Force Association, said the incident on Friday -- in which the pilot ejected from the aircraft and suffered non-life-threatening injuries -- underscores that lives are being put unnecessarily at risk.
"Obviously that pilot in Missouri didn't get into that aircraft thinking it would come apart on him," Birkey said. "Each day you push out the age of the fleet, you're coming closer to a cliff. That F-15 went off a cliff."
Last week's crash provides the Air Force with another argument for retiring the older models of the $30 million F-15 -- the one that went down, an F-15C, was built nearly 30 years ago. Instead, the Air Force would like to produce hundreds more highly advanced F-22 fighter jets at a cost of about $132 million each.
The Air Force currently has 97 F-22 aircraft, and this summer it contracted with Lockheed Martin to produce 60 more by the end of 2011. Congress has approved the purchase of 183 F-22s, but the Air Force has asked for 381.
"It does make you wonder about the stress on the airframe and the age," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a supporter of the F-22. "But this is not just simply a matter of flight reliability because of aging and metal fatigue, but the fact that the F-22 is so far superior."
Air Force officials said the crash on Friday involved a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C on a training flight with other fighter jets doing combat simulations. After the pilot ejected, the aircraft crashed in a wooded rural area in Dent County, Mo.
The same Air National Guard unit lost an F-15 in May when a cable failed, affecting steering ability.
Preliminary reports on the recent crash indicate that the jet broke apart just behind the cockpit while in flight, suggesting a major structural failure, according to two people familiar with the incident. The Air Force's Safety Investigation Board is on the scene of the crash and is expected to determine a cause within 60 days.
The Air Force said it is possible that the F-15s could be grounded for days or much longer if top officials decide that all the aircraft must be thoroughly inspected. The newer F-15E Strike Eagles have flown daily missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, with commanders using them to drop guided bombs and to present shows of force to the enemy.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of U.S. Central Command's Combined Forces Air Component, said he has put all the F-15Es under his command on ground alert and will accomplish all assigned missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with a variety of other aircraft -- including fighter, attack and bomber planes and unmanned airplanes. North said yesterday that the move is a sign that the Air Force takes the safety of its air crews very seriously.
"I worry about the health of our aging fleet and how sometimes it is not well understood by those our airmen protect," North said.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, flew new F-15s in 1979 and later had a major emergency in one of the same planes while flying a mission over Iraq in 1999, when wiring disintegrated from age. Eight years later, Deptula's son, 1st Lt. David Deptula II, is flying the same planes.
"They have become serious maintenance challenges as they get older, and now I'd suggest that we may be facing a crisis," Lt. Gen. Deptula said.