Structural Flaws May Ground Older F-15s Indefinitely
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007; Page A01
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 pits of eight other F-15s, and they fear that similar problems could exist in others.
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The F-15, mainstay of the Air Force's combat force for 30 years, has been grounded since November. (Robert A. Reeder/Post)
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Current and former Air Force officials said that the grounding of the F-15s -- on average 25 years old -- is the longest that U.S. fighter jets have ever been kept out of the air. Even if the jets are cleared for flight, they add, it could take six months to get the pilots and aircraft back to their normal status.
The grounded fighter jets do not include 224 F-15Es, which have been inspected and cleared. The E models, used to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are about 10 years younger and have a more robust frame.
The F-15A-Ds, meanwhile, 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, a Bethesda-based firm.
Significant cracks have been found in the longerons, or structural beams, 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 back of one plane was ripped off behind the pit during a 500-mph dogfight practice. An official crash investigation is scheduled for completion soon.
Some outside analysts have said that the F-15 problems can be fixed and that 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 a 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 that it could make a better case for leasing new ones.
Air Force photos of the damaged beams show clearly visible cracks toward the rear of the fighters' pits. Photos and drawings provided to The Washington Post show cracks in similar locations on both sides of the planes and that the F-15 that crashed had undetected damage behind the pit.
Maj. Stephen Stilwell, 37, of Missouri was taking that F-15 through basic dogfighting maneuvers Nov.