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Future still unknown for 158 grounded F-15s

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By Bruce Rolfsen - Staff writer

Posted : Saturday Feb 16, 2008 7:11:38 EST

 

A month after the Air Force cleared about two-thirds of its F-15 Eagles to

resume flying on Jan. 9, 158 of the fighters — all models A through D —

remain grounded as Air Force officials decide whether to fix or retire the

jets.

Cleared to fly are 280 F-15s, scattered at 16 bases in the U.S. and

overseas, according to the latest numbers from the Air Force.

Of the grounded jets, nine have cracks in support beams called longerons

that reinforce the fuselage.

The remaining 149 grounded jets have longerons that were not manufactured to

the original specifications. The problems include sections that are too thin

or have rough surfaces — flaws that may lead to cracking.

Unaffected by the grounding are F-15E Strike Eagles, a bomber version of the

F-15, several of which are flying sorties in Afghanistan. The E-models’

larger size and different design meant the jets didn’t have the longeron

problems of the F-15’s air-to-air combat version.

Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, one of the Air Force’s top acquisition officials at

the Pentagon, said Thursday that decisions about returning the jets to the

sky would likely be made on a plane-by-plane basis.

The factors figured into return-to-flight decisions likely include the costs

of repairing each fighter, weighed against the jet’s overall condition and

where the jet fits into the Air Force’s long-term plans to retire aging

aircraft, Hoffman said.

The service had been aiming to keep 177 F-15s, dubbed “Golden Eagles,”

flying past 2020 and upgrading them with new radars and avionics.

A preliminary estimate of the price tag for replacing one longeron is

$235,000, Hoffman said.

At the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia, a team from the 573rd

Manufacturing Squadron is creating 15 longerons, milling aluminum alloy

beams to match the original F-15 specifications, a logistics center

spokesman said.

Other options

Besides replacing longerons, there are other options for getting the F-15s

airborne.

In some cases where the discrepancy between specifications and the plane are

minor, the Air Force might allow an F-15 to return to flight without any

modifications — what Hoffman called an “engineering solution.” However, the

jet would then have to go through more rigorous and regular inspections,

such as checking the longerons every 100 fight hours.

Air Force officials have also suggested that some longerons that aren’t

cracked could be reinforced instead of replaced.

The troubled F-15s were built in the 1970s and early 1980s by McDonnell

Douglas, a firm that later was bought by Boeing Co. Hoffman said no decision

has been made if the Air Force will try to hold Boeing financially

responsible for F-15 woes. “We’re still doing our due diligence,” Hoffman

said.

One problem with sorting out liability is that much of the detailed

paperwork for accepting each jet was discarded over the past 25-plus years.

The problem jets came off production lines between 1978 and 1985. By

percentage, the greatest impact has been with the two-seat B and D models,

fighters primarily used for training. All six of the F-15Bs remain grounded,

while about 30 of the 41 F-15Ds can’t fly.

Air Combat Command boss Gen. John Corley has overall authority over F-15

grounding decisions.

The F-15s were grounded on Nov. 3, a day after a Missouri Air National Guard

F-15C broke apart as it made a 7.8G right turn at nearly 500 miles per hour.

The pilot, Maj. Stephen Stilwell, was able to eject even after the cockpit

had snapped away and the tumbling canopy had broken his left arm and

shoulder.

An accident investigation board report issued Jan. 10 concluded the jet

split in two because a right-side longeron supporting the canopy and cockpit

cracked apart during the high-G turn.

The fracture was a result of the longeron having been built thinner than

what specifications called for. The upper side of the longeron should have

been 0.1 inch thick. Instead, the longeron varied in thickness from 0.039 to

0.073 inch thick.

The crack wasn’t spotted before the crash because the longeron had a

predicted life of more than 30,000 flight hours and was never inspected.

Stilwell’s jet had logged 5,868 flight hours since it was built in 1980.

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Which squadrons are having these problems primarilly? Hope it isn't the 102d or the 104 Fighter Wings.

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Fighter jet training to begin

Saturday, February 16, 2008

By TED LaBORDE

tlaborde@repub.com

WESTFIELD - The new mission of homeland security for the Northeast will not

be fully realized for another two to three years, but activity involving the

Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Wing will intensify next week when pilots

begin daily training with the F-15 Eagle fighter jet.

Wing commanders said yesterday F-15 flights out of Barnes Municipal Airport

are targeted to begin on Friday. There will be four flights a day, mostly

during daylight hours. Pilots and the rest of the unit's estimated 1,300

members continue preparations to assume control of the region's homeland

security.

Those preparations are being supervised by interim wing commander Brig. Gen.

L. Scott Rice, vice commander Lt. Col. James J. Keefe and Lt. Col. Kenneth

L. Lambrich, commander of the 104th Operations Group.

 

Lambrich will determine flight training missions of the 20 plus pilots

recently transferred to the 104th from the 102nd Fighter Wing in Otis. A

seasoned F-15 pilot, Lambrich is one of nine pilots from the 102nd to

transfer here and is the first member of that unit to hold a command

position with the 104th.

Lambrich and Keefe, son of retired Massachusetts Air National Guard

commander George Keefe, assumed their positions on Feb. 9. Keefe previously

served the 104th as commander of the 131st Fighter Squadron. He and Lambrich

are veteran fighter pilots with more than 2,500 flying hours. Both are on

leave from their civilian jobs as pilots for United Airlines.

Keefe lives in Northampton. Lambrich resides in Sandwich, but plans to

relocate to the Westfield area shortly.

The 104th has long been considered the best A-10 unit in the Air Force

system, and the unit's goal now, Lambrich and Keefe said, is to become the

best F-15 unit in the country.

The F-15 had been grounded by the Air Force in the final months of 2007

after one began to break apart and crashed on Nov. 2 in Missouri. An

inspection for possible structural deficiencies was conducted and the ground

order was lifted last month. Lambrich and Keefe said the jets assigned to

the 104th are free of structural problems, and, despite the national

inspection, F-15s assigned here will undergo inspection by unit maintenance

staff.

Lambrich and Keefe said they are aware of potential noise concerns from

neighbors of the guard base and because of that, flights will be directed to

the north, over parts of Southampton, for takeoff. Returning jets to Barnes

Municipal Airport will come from the south.

"At first, noise levels will be high because of a need to take off with full

afterburners during initial flights of each aircraft. But that will decrease

as we fly more often," Lambrich said.

Keefe said that as training progresses, the base will see an estimated $77

million in construction for support facilities.

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Depends on definition of "replace". The F-16 can do the mission but not to the same degree. It has shorter range, less combat endurance, and the radar isn't as powerful.

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