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Scores of F-15s Likely to Stay Grounded
Los Angeles Times  |  By Julian E. Barnes  |  January 10, 2008
The Air Force is likely to order dozens of its F-15 fighter jets permanently grounded because of critical structural flaws, significantly reducing the number of planes available to protect the United States, officials said Tuesday.

After one of the fighters broke apart during a simulated dogfight in November, Air Force officials grounded the entire F-15 fleet, nearly 700 planes, fearing such a defect. The newest versions of the fighter jets were allowed to resume flying shortly afterward, but 440 of the older model F-15s have remained out of service.

The Air Force plans to allow about 260 of the remaining grounded planes to return to duty today. About 180 will remain idle because of suspected structural flaws.

"Many of them may never fly again," said a senior Air Force officer. The officer, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because results of the investigation were not to be made public until today.

Many of the F-15s, long the nation's most sophisticated front- line fighters, have been around for 30 years, and the fleet is being replaced gradually. The Air Force still relies on F-15s to protect the continental United States and to fly combat missions abroad. Newer model F-15Es are used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and were the first of the planes to resume flying after the mishap in November.

The problems with the F-15, Air Force officials argue, have increased the need to buy additional F-22s, a swift and stealthy but expensive new fighter plane.

"This is grave," said a senior Air Force official. "Two hundred of our air superiority aircraft are on the ground, and we are acting like it is business as usual."

An investigation of the Nov. 2 crash shows the F-15 that broke apart in midair had a fault in a crucial support component called a longeron, a structural beam that serves as part of the spine of the aircraft. F-15s have four longerons around the cockpit.

Air Force officials have not yet learned how a defective beam came to be installed in the plane when it was manufactured in 1980. But Air Force officials emphasized that the age of the airframe, combined with the faulty part, put the older F-15s at risk.

There is one squadron of about 20 F-15s based at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. Langley spokeswoman Lt. Georganne Schultz said Tuesday night that the base has not received any word that its jets will be among those permanently grounded.

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