WASHINGTON – Air Force inspectors have discovered major structural flaws in eight older-model F-15 fighters, sparking a new round of examinations that could ground all of the older jets into January or beyond, senior Air Force and defense officials said.
The Air Force’s 442 F-15A through F-15D planes, the mainstay of the nation’s air-to-air combat force for 30 years, have been grounded since November, shortly after one of the airplanes broke into large chunks and crashed in rural Missouri. Since then, Air Force officials have found cracks in the main support beams behind the cockpits of eight other F-15s, and they fear similar problems could exist in others.
Current and former Air Force officials said the grounding of the F-15 fleet is the longest that U.S. fighter jets have ever been kept out of the air and that even if the jets are cleared for flight it could take six months to get the pilots and aircraft back to their normal status. The F-15A-Ds – on average 25 years old – are responsible for defending the United States, including flying combat air patrol missions over Washington, a job now filled by F-16s.
“This is going to be a major problem, and it’s going to be a difficult one to recover from,” said retired Air Force Gen. Dick Hawley, who led the Air Force’s Air Combat Command from 1996 to 1999. “You could basically be without the nation’s primary air superiority capability for an extended period of time, which puts us at risk.”
The disclosure of the cracks comes amid intense Air Force lobbying for the purchase of additional new fighter jets. The Air Force wants to replace its aging F-15s with 200 more F-22 Raptors beyond the 183 already approved by Congress and the Defense Department. Senior Defense Department officials have not agreed that the additional planes are needed or supported their purchase. The F-22s, which cost $132 million each, are manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
Significant cracks have been found in the longerons that support the F-15 fuselage, Air Force officials said, damage that is believed to be connected to the intense stresses placed on the planes during decades of high-speed maneuvers. The crash last month happened after the aircraft disintegrated behind the cockpit during a 500-mph dogfight and the entire back of the plane was ripped off. An official crash investigation is scheduled for completion soon.
Some outside analysts have said the F-15 problems can be fixed and the extra F-22s are unnecessary. “I don’t suspect that the Air Force is lying when it says it has discovered stress fractures in the longerons of the F-15s,” said Winslow Wheeler, an expert at the Center for Defense Information and longtime opponent of purchasing additional F-22s. “But there’s no big deal about that. Fix it.”
Wheeler said Congress should look into the F-15 issue. In another prominent case, involving refueling tankers, several independent study panels concluded that the Air Force had exaggerated the structural consequences of aging for older planes so it could make a better case for leasing new ones.
Since last month’s crash, similar stress fatigue has been found in eight airplanes. Four of the damaged aircraft were at the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing at Kingsley Field, one of the country’s two F-15 training bases. So far, all 25 of the wing’s F-15s have been grounded for six weeks.
“The hope is that they will fly again,” said Capt. Lucas Ritter, a spokesman for the 173rd. “But we don’t have a time frame for when that will be.”
Inspectors plan to increase their investigation to include larger areas of the beams. Senior Air Force officials said it is unlikely that the entire fleet will be grounded indefinitely but they are concerned.