WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of F-15s, the service’s premier fighter aircraft, after one of the planes disintegrated over eastern Missouri during a training mission, raising the possibility of a fatal flaw in the aging fighters’ fuselage that could keep it out of the skies for months.
Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, ordered the grounding Saturday after initial reports showed that the Missouri Air National Guard fighter plane broke apart Friday in midair during a simulated dogfight.
Although the 688 F-15s in the Air Force’s arsenal gradually are being replaced by a new generation of aircraft – the F-22 – they remain the nation’s most sophisticated front-line fighters. U.S. officials said the F-15s are used heavily for protecting the continental U.S. from terrorist attack, as well as for combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, the Air Force officer in charge of military aircraft in the Middle East, issued a statement Monday saying he would be able to fill the gap with other fighters and bombers. But another Air Force official said the F-15 grounding will have a “significant impact” on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They will clearly have to work hard to pick up the slack,” the official said.
The health of the F-15 fleet has long been a concern for Air Force brass, who repeatedly have warned that the two-engine fighter had exceeded its expected life span and was straining under the workload imposed by the counterterrorism duty.
In addition, Moseley repeatedly has raised concerns that the plane is inadequate for increasingly sophisticated air defense systems being developed by China and Iran.
“The F-15s … they’re very capable airplanes,” Moseley told a congressional hearing in October. “But against the new-generation threat systems, they don’t have the advantage that we had when they were designed in the late 1960s and built in the 1970s.”
In May, another Missouri Air National Guard F-15 crashed in southern Indiana during a similar training exercise. The pilots in Friday’s crash and the May accident survived.
The F-15 that crashed Friday was 27 years old. Of the five versions of the F-15 used by the Air Force, four versions average between 24 and 30 years of age.