The Air Force announced Friday that it had ordered the inspection of all F-117 stealth fighters after discovering that a “significant defect” in a wing support might have contributed to the crash of one last month at an air show near Baltimore.
The Air Force would not describe the defect, saying that a public explanation would have to await the formal findings of an investigation.
But Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the defect appeared to be the result of the improper installation of a piece of the wing by mechanics. They said Air Force investigators were trying to determine if the team of mechanics should be held liable for the crash in Baltimore County on Sept. 14.
In a statement to news organizations, the Air Force said, “Physical evidence found in the crash debris revealed a significant defect in a support structure in the left wing of the accident aircraft.”
The Air Force announced that its fleet of 53 F-117 fighters, which had been grounded as a result of the accident, would be returned to flying operations as soon as inspections were completed.
Spokesmen said an initial inspection of the bat-winged fighters, which are designed to evade enemy radar, suggested that the flaw in the plane that crashed was unique.
“So far, the discrepancy in the accident aircraft appears to be an anomaly, but each and every airplane will undergo this extensive inspection before we return it to the skies,” said Gen. Dick Hawley, the commander of the Air Combat Command, which oversees the Air Force’s combat fleet.
Hawley added, “We are confident that this inspection process will result in safe and totally airworthy aircraft.”
In the accident last month, a piece of the left wing of one of the $43 million fighters snapped off as it performed maneuvers before thousands of spectators at a community air show.
The pilot ejected and parachuted to safety as the plane crashed, destroying one house and damaging another. No one on the ground was seriously injured.
The accident was one of five military crashes in a single week last month. The string of accidents, which marred ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the Air Force, led the Defense Department to issue an unprecedented order to the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps to suspend all training flights for a 24-hour period to provide safety lectures to military aviators and ground crews.
In another accident, all four crew members aboard a B-1B bomber were killed when it crashed on a training mission in the southeastern corner of Montana on Sept. 19. The cause of that accident is under investigation.
Pentagon officials confirmed a report in The Baltimore Sun Friday that Air Force investigators believed the wing support in the left wing of the F-117 that crashed last month had been improperly installed. The plane had recently undergone maintenance at a test-range airfield at Tonapah, Nev., and the officials said maintenance crews at the airfield would be questioned by investigators.
Most of the F-117 fleet is based at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The fighter that crashed was one of two F-117s that had been temporarily based at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., for air shows in the Eastern United States.
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