WASHINGTON – The front-line fighter jet of the Navy and Marines has suffered a series of recent accidents blamed on brake failure, exposing a problem that has spurred urgent warnings from commanders, military documents obtained by the Associated Press show.
Brake problems affecting the F/A-18 Hornet pose “a severe hazard to Naval aviation” that could kill pilots and ruin valuable aircraft, a Navy air wing commander wrote last year after one of his jets roared off a runway and splashed into San Diego Bay, destroying the $30 million plane.
Many of the brake failures have been traced to a $535 electrical cable – about as thin as a drinking straw – that controls the jet’s antiskid brakes, the equivalent of antilock brakes on a passenger car. Investigators say the cable can chafe or break, since it runs close to where heavy tie-down chains secure the jets to a carrier deck.
In the San Diego crash, Navy investigators cited “a trend of similar, if not identical, emergencies” that date to 1990 but went unnoticed until a series of failures last year, according to records the AP obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
One Navy pilot aborted a landing last fall when his brakes failed after a combat mission over Iraq. He took off again, circled the runway in Kuwait for a second landing attempt, then lowered his tailhook and caught the emergency arresting cable on the ground. He was not hurt and there was no damage to the jet.
A month earlier, a Marine commander was seriously injured when he ejected after he lost his brakes landing on a short runway at Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. Other failures have occurred as recently as February.
Making matters worse, some pilots did not know the proper procedures for brake emergencies and took actions that contributed to crashes, the records show.
The Navy ordered fleetwide inspections last fall and is continuing to investigate whether it needs to redesign the Hornet’s brakes, as some commanders have urged.
The maker of the jet, Boeing Co., deferred comment to the Navy.
The U.S. military owns 561 Hornets, including those flown by the elite Blue Angels aerobatic team. Collectively, they represent a mainstay of Navy and Marine aviation, operating from both aircraft carriers and runways.
Investigators have concluded that cockpit procedures were confusing for pilots landing with brake failures.
Lt. Jason Walker, low on fuel, was landing in San Diego at night after two unsuccessful landing attempts. The jet’s brakes failed one second after touchdown, and, among other problems, Walker couldn’t find the cockpit controls to engage emergency backup brakes. He ejected as the jet sped off the runway and into the bay at 60 mph. The Navy determined Walker shouldn’t be disciplined.
The Navy last fall ordered fleetwide inspections of brake components, instructed mechanics to immediately replace any cables they previously had repaired and reminded pilots about procedures to help land safely even when antiskid brakes fail.
But fresh problems have surfaced.
At AP’s request, the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., located about two-dozen formal reports describing failures of the Hornet’s antiskid brakes since 1990.
The incidents caused the loss of one jet, damage of at least $1 million to another, damage of up to $200,000 on three additional jets, one serious injury and one other overnight hospital stay.
Officials acknowledge that their tally of formal reports probably understates the number of brake failures. One report filed in January referred to 14 Hornet brake failures and tire blowouts in a single squadron during 2004 alone.
The Navy told the AP the antiskid brakes are safe and reliable, and that pilots should be able to land safely despite problems if they follow proper emergency procedures.