The Navy is using a temporary shutdown of F-14 flight operations to try to answer a haunting question triggered by three recent crashes: Might the sudden string of losses mean the whole F-14 fleet is unsafe?
Because the pilot and radar intercepter officer aboard an F-14 that crashed in the Persian Gulf on Thursday ejected and were rescued, the Navy may get some early clues. The two-man crews in the previous two crashes were killed.Cmdr. Stephen Pietropaoli, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said there would be no comment on the suspected cause of Thursday's accident until the investigation is completed.
He said there had not yet been a decision on whether to salvage the wreckage from the crash site in the northern Gulf, just south of Iraq. He said the plane was about 30 miles from the carrier USS Nimitz when it went down.
In the meantime, Adm. Mike Boorda, the chief of naval operations, ordered all 337 of the remaining F-14s to stop flying for three days. Navy safety and engineering experts will review the three F-14 crashes in search of common threads.
An F-14 crashed last Sunday in the Pacific Ocean; another crashed Jan. 29 in Nashville, Tenn. There have been 10 crashes in the past two years and 32 since 1991. The F-14's crash rate in the period is a little worse than for other planes, but the Navy so far has not identified a specific reason for the losses.
"This is a mystery," said Kenneth Bacon, spokesman for Defense Secretary William Perry.
Just two days earlier Bacon had said in response to questions about Sunday's crash, in which the two crewmen were killed, that the Navy saw no pattern in recent F-14 crashes that would call for special safety precautions.
Each of the last three planes to crash was based at Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, although they were from different squadrons. Six of the Navy's 13 F-14 squadrons are at Miramar. The others are at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia.
The planes cost $32 million apiece.
The F-14 is a carrier-based fighter, first put into service in 1973 and designed to attack hostile aircraft under any weather conditions. There are three models of the twin-engine aircraft in use. The "A" model, of which Thursday's loss was one, is the oldest and has two Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines.
All 211 "A" models still in service are due to be retired by 2004. The "B" and "D" models have newer General Electric engines. They are scheduled to keep flying until 2010 when a new-generation front-line fighter is due.
During the 72-hour stand down, none of the remaining F-14s, including the others aboard the Nimitz, will be flown, spokesman Pietropaoli said.