Alarmed by a spate of dramatic and often fatal airplane crashes in the last four days, the Defense Department for the first time ever has ordered each of the armed services to suspend training flights for 24 hours to give aviators and ground crews additional safety lectures.
The order issued Wednesday by Secretary of Defense William Cohen affects training on all fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters deployed by the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps around the world. It does not extend to flights for reconnaissance, resupply, medical evacuations or combat patrol such as those supporting NATO troops in Bosnia or those enforcing the zone where flights are banned over parts of Iraq.
“I have asked the services to implement a 24-hour safety stand down of training flights that will give those who fly and maintain U.S. military aircraft time to focus on that goal - making flying as safe as we possibly can,” Cohen said. “I know that everyone in the Department takes accident prevention seriously and that we can do better.”
Cohen left it up to each service to determine when it would impose a 24-hour moratorium within a seven-day period beginning at 7 a.m. on Friday. Pentagon officials said this was the first time all four services have been asked to suspend training flights at the same time. In the past there have been so-called safety stand downs imposed on particular classes of aircraft, particular bases, or discrete units like the Air National Guard.
Fairchild Air Force Base, outside of Spokane, runs 10 to 14 training flights each day, said Airman 1st Class Martin Jackson.
The base has not been told when it must cease its training flights, Jackson said on Wednesday.
The Coast Guard, which maintains a fleet of rescue airplanes and helicopters, is a unit of the Department of Transportation and is not affected by the Pentagon action.
The order comes a day after two F-16 fighter jets flown by the New Jersey Air National Guard collided during night training exercises over the ocean near Atlantic City. None of the three crew members - a pilot in one fighter and a pilot and crew member in the other - were seriously hurt, but one $20 million aircraft was lost in the Atlantic.
Tuesday’s accident was the fifth air crash since Saturday, when an Air Force C-141 transport plane apparently collided with a German military aircraft off the coast of Namibia in southern Africa. Thirty-three people are missing from that crash. On Sunday, an F-117 Stealth fighter mysteriously broke apart and crashed while performing in an air show near Baltimore.
And on Monday, a Navy F-18 fighter went down in Oman and a Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter crashed in Pamlico Sound off the coast of North Carolina, killing the pilot and weapons officer.
None of the accidents appeared to be related. The Stealth fighter, for example, may have experienced some kind of structural failure. The C-141 collision looks as if it resulted from an error by air traffic controllers. And while it is still too early to determine the cause of Tuesday night’s crash, the two F-16 fighters were zooming around in close quarters at about 340 mph with the pilots wearing night-vision goggles that can cause disorientation.
President Clinton, who met with Cohen at the White House on Monday, said Wednesday that he had urged the defense secretary to study the accidents.
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