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Navy Orders Three-Day Halt Of F-14 Flights after Crashes

By Bradley Graham
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Navy ordered a three-day halt to flights of F-14 fighter aircraft Thursday after losing another of the supersonic jets off a carrier in the Persian Gulf.

It was the third crash of an F-14 in less than a month and left defense officials baffled about what could explain the sudden spike in naval air accidents. Each of the recent crashes has occurred under widely dissimilar circumstances and involved different squadrons, although all the planes and crews were based at Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego.

"We do not know what has caused these three crashes this year with the F-14s," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters.

In pulling the fighters out of service temporarily, Navy commanders hope to use the pause to search for common threads among the recent mishaps, compare them to past accidents and re-evaluate training, maintenance and other related procedures.

Bacon said the respite also will serve "as a warning, as a period of reflection, for the whole F-14 community," allowing them time "to sit down and to sort of replow everything they've learned."

The more than 330 F-14s constitute about one-fifth of the Navy's fighter fleet and have been relied on heavily lately to patrol skies over Bosnia and Iraq. But defense officials said taking the planes out of action would not impair U.S. military operations around the world, since other Navy jets as well as Air Force fighters could be substituted.

Pentagon officials continued to defend the F-14's flying record, saying its accident rate has improved substantially since the aircraft's introduction 23 years ago and now compares favorably with the average for all carrier-based warplanes.

Holding up a chart showing a steady decline in F-14 mishap rates, Bacon pointed to several years in which the rate suddenly - and, to this day, inexplicably - shot up, only to recede again the following year.

Nonetheless, a General Accounting Office report released earlier this month said Navy and Marine Corps planes scored higher mishap rates per 100,000 flying hours than Air Force and Army aircraft - a fact that Navy officials attribute to the greater challenges of operating off aircraft carriers.

The latest surge in crashes clearly has rattled the Navy's leadership. Adm. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, the chief of naval operations, wasted little time in ordering the stand down after learning of Thursday's crash. He had been considering such a move for several days, since another F-14 went down off the coast of California Sunday, according to Navy officials.

Thursday's crash occurred at 2:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. EST) over international waters in the Persian Gulf after the F-14D had taken off from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on what one Navy official termed a "post-maintenance check flight," testing a piece of equipment or system that had needed repairs or maintenance.

"They were testing it to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to be doing," the official said. Initial indications were that pilot error was to blame, according to another source familiar with the incident.

The plane's pilot and radar intercept officer ejected safely and were rescued by helicopter about 30 miles from the carrier, according to a Navy statement.

In Sunday's crash, an F-14D assigned to the carrier USS Carl Vinson was speeding low over water about 120 miles off the Southern California coast, simulating a cruise missile as part of a routine exercise to help surface ships practice their tracking systems. The plane's two crew members ejected before the plane broke up and sank.

Aviators have complained for years that the engines on the older "A" model F-14s are not powerful enough to suit their needs and require a very sensitive touch on the throttle. The Navy has since introduced more powerful "B" and "D" models.

"Each of these crashes occurred under very different circumstances," observed a Navy official. "One was a take-off situation; another plane was flying fast and low; and the most recent one was flying at a higher altitude."

Among the things likely to be considered during the stand down, the official said, is whether to tighten restrictions on speed and maneuvers for F-14 aircraft.