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Three Recent Fatal Fighter Crashes Renew Concerns over Aging Fleet

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The death of an F-16 pilot on a Nov. 30 mission against ISIS and other recent fatal crashes of fighter aircraft have focused renewed attention on what Air Force leadership calls an "ancient" and "decrepit" fleet prone to accidents.

"This latest F-16 crash and its tragic outcome is one more example now that points clearly to what is a trend" of mishaps involving F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft, said MacKenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who has focused on the aging Air Force fleets. "This cannot be waved off as a one-off incident."

In the latest crash, an F-16 flying out of a Mideast airbase that the military would not identify experienced "maintenance problems" shortly after takeoff on a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said.

The plane crashed as it attempted to return to base in what the Air Force termed a "non-combat incident," killing the pilot who was later identified as Capt. William Dubois, 30, of New Castle, Colorado.

Dubois, of New Castle, Colorado, was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, which deployed to the Mideast in early October.

In a video statement, Col. Stephen Jost, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw, said losing Dubois was "sad and tragic."

"Our most sincere condolences are with his family, his friends and squadron members during this difficult time," Jost said. "Capt. Dubois was a patriot, who was willing to put his life on the line every day in service to his nation. He was a valued airman, pilot and friend of those he touched here at Shaw Air Force Base. He will be greatly missed."

Earlier last month, another F-16C pilot was killed when the aircraft flying out of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida went down in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off Panama City, Fla.

Coast Guard and Air Force search and rescue teams later found the remains of the pilot who was identified as Matthew J. LaCourse, 58, of Panama City Beach, Fla. LaCourse, who retired as an Air Force lieutenant colonel after 22 years of service, was flying as a civilian pilot for the Air Force.

The crash of LaCourse's plane followed the Aug. 27 crash of a 28-year-old F-15C fighter from Barnes Air National Guard Base near Boston on a flight to New Orleans, where the aircraft was to receive a radar upgrade to extend its life cycle.

The fighter went down in a densely wooded area near Deerfield, Va., setting off an extensive search that two days later found the remains of Lt. Col. Morris "Moose" Fontenot, Jr.

In his last radio transmission, Fontenot, who had 17 years experience in F-15s, reported an in-flight emergency while flying above 30,000 feet, said Col. James Keefe, Fontenot's commander at the 104th Fighter Wing based at Barnes.

The Air Force has said that the crashes of the two F-16s and the F-15 were under investigation and no results have yet been released. "As far as we know, it's still ongoing," Senior Master Sgt. Robert Sabonis, a spokesman at Barnes, said of the investigation into the crash of Fontenot's plane.

Fontenot, an Air Force Academy graduate, was the 104th's Inspector General in charge of implementation of the Air Force Inspection System. He was also an F-15 instructor pilot with more than 2,300 flight hours.

The recent fatal crashes underlined concerns expressed for years by top Air Force officials about metal fatigue, structural issues and maintenance not only for its fleet of fighter aircraft but also for bombers and tankers.

For more than a decade, the readiness of the F-15s has been a major concern of the Air Force. In November 2007, those concerns came to a head when a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C broke apart over Boss, Missouri. The pilot safely ejected.

The incident forced the grounding of the entire F-15 fleet during the accident investigation. Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command's Combined Forces Air Component, put all of his F-15Es on ground alert while flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with other aircraft.

"I worry about the health of our aging fleet and how sometimes it is not well understood by those our airmen protect," North said at the time.

At an average age of 27.2 years, "we now have the oldest Air Force fleet in history," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in prepared remarks at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference in September at National Harbor, Maryland. The average age of the Air Force fleet this year is 27.2 years.

The F-15 was designed to have a service life of about 5,000 flight hours. With upgrades, the Air Force has more than tripled that, to 18,000 hours. The F-16 has been in use since 1979.

Last summer, the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Review panel, which was tasked with analyzing the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, said that "the Air Force now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history yet needs a global surveillance and strike force able to rapidly deploy to theaters of operation to deter, defeat, or punish multiple aggressors simultaneously.

"As a result of the budget constraints imposed by the 2011Budget Control Act, the Air Force's bomber, fighter and surveillance forces are programmed to draw down to approximately 50 percent of the current inventory by 2019," said the panel which was led by former Defense Secretary William Perry and retired Army Gen. John Abizaid.

At the Air and Space conference, Air Force Secretary Deborah James called the Air Force fleet "ancient" and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said "Airplanes are falling apart."

"I don't care if it's B-1 (bomber) oil flanges that are breaking and starting fires, or F-16 canopies cracking. There are just too many things (that) are happening because our fleets are too old," Welsh said.  "They're just flat too old. We have to recapitalize."

As for the three recent fatal fighter aircraft crashes, Todd Harrison, a Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analyst, cautioned against drawing conclusions but said they were "cause for concern. There are risks involved with not being able to afford the same size force."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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Richard Sisk

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