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F-22 Taken Out By A CF-18
by James Dunnigan
May 11, 2009

For the second time in a month, a U.S. Air Force F-22 suffered a "Class A" accident (one causing over a million dollars of loss). This one was the result of an F-22 colliding with a Canadian CF-18 while taxiing at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. This is the fifth F-22 Class A accident in the last six years. The last one was a crash, in which the pilot was killed. The only other crash did not result in the loss of the pilot.

It’s easier to have a Class A accident for an F-22, as the construction cost of the aircraft is over $140 million. The damage to the F-22 in the most recent accident was described as minor, but costing just over a million dollars to fix. The damage to the CF-18 will cost much less to repair.

So far, the air force has received 136 F-22s, and the aircraft entered service two years ago. With the recent crash, the F-22 an accident rate is about 7 per 100,000 hours. F-15s and F-16s have an accident rate of 3-4 per 100,000 flight hours. India, using mostly Russian aircraft, has an accident rate of 6-7 per 100,000 hours flown (compared to 4-5 for all NATO air forces.) The Indian rate had been over ten for many years, and it is still that high, and often higher, with other nations (including Russia and China), that use Russian aircraft designs.

The B-52 has the lowest accident rate of (less than 1.5 per 100,000 flying hours) of all American heavy bombers. The B-1s rate is 3.48. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs.

New aircraft always have higher accident rates, which is how many hidden (from the design engineers and test pilots) flaws and technical problems. The F-22 is expected to eventually have an accident rate of 2-3 per 100,000 flight hours. The higher initial accident rate is part of a trend typical of new aircraft. The most recent accident, at Tyndall, appears to be human error or, at most, the failure of one of the less complex systems on the aircraft (like the ground steering or brakes.)

Combat aircraft are becoming more reliable, even as they become more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later, the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time, the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours. Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering, and more sensors built into equipment, makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember, because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft give them more aircraft to use in combat, and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

Unmanned aircraft have a much higher rate, which is largely the result of not having a pilot on board. The RQ-1 Predator has an accident rate of about 30 per 100,000 hours. Older model UAVs had much higher rates (up to 363 for the RQ-2A). But engineers are already developing new technology to reduce this loss rate, mainly by making the UAVs themselves "smarter" and better able to operate on their own.


 

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