- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Four Navy fighter jets have crashed during training missions in the United States in the past seven days in what the Navy is investigating as a sudden series of unrelated “mishaps.”

Although they caused no deaths and only minor injuries, the crashes resulted in the loss of more than $100 million worth of some of the militarys most high-tech aircraft and have had an eye-opening effect on Navy officials.

“A year ago, we were flying combat missions and had fewer incidents and fewer injuries than in the last few weeks,” said Lt. Cmdr. Danny J. Hernandez, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. “Were extremely fortunate that we have not lost a shipmate in any of these mishaps.”

Many aircraft are lost each year during training missions, Navy officials said, citing the more than 20 destroyed during fiscal 2003. Still, officials said, four jets crashing in a single week is alarming, as it marks the same number the Navy lost during the entire combat phase of the Iraq war.

After two planes were destroyed during training last week, naval air forces commanders responded by opening a “leadership intervention” plan, notifying naval aviation officers to begin examining fundamental operations. However, as the notification was being issued on Monday, two more jets crashed.

Navy officials yesterday said the intervention plan is proceeding and that carrier wing commanders, wing commanders and squadron commanding officers have been asked to provide feedback within the next two weeks to Vice Adm. Michael D. Malone, the commander of Naval Air Forces.

“We continue to be the best-trained, most qualified war-fighting aviators in the world. With that said, its important to periodically examine our fundamentals and continue to ensure we operate safely,” Adm. Malone said in a statement.

The most recent crash, involving a two-seat F-14D Tomcat, occurred Monday afternoon about two miles off the coast of San Diego. The jets crew ejected and were rescued, the Navy said, adding the jet had been based with Fighter Squadron 31 at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

The other crash Monday involved a single-seat F/A-18A Hornet, based with the Naval Reserve out of Naval Air Station Atlanta, that went down near Chattanooga, Tenn. The pilot ejected, but suffered a broken leg in the process.

Pilots escaped unharmed from last weeks crashes, which involved two other single-seat F-18s, of a slightly different model from the F/A-18A, the Navy said. One of the jets, based with Strike Fighter Squadron 82 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., crashed off South Carolinas coast last Wednesday. Until late last month, the jet had been stationed aboard the USS Enterprise in support of the Iraq war.

The other jet went into flames Friday while taking off from a refueling stop at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. That jet also was based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, with Strike Fighter Squadron 15. Cmdr. Hernandez said there have been several other less severe accidents, only one of which involved an aircraft being destroyed.

The types of aircraft lost in the crashes were among the Navys best. The F/A-18, was instrumental during the early stages of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the same model of jet flown during air shows by the Navys elite Blue Angels.

The F/A-18 is capable of speeds of about 1,400 mph, nearly twice the speed of sound. Pilots have said the jet “handles like a Cadillac.”

F-18 Hornets cost from $29 million to $32 million each, and each F-14 Tomcat costs more than $40 million.

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