As a Navy SH-3 helicopter approached North Island Naval Air Station for a routine landing in 1982, a 30-pound aluminum door fell off and plunged about 500 feet into a condominium swimming pool in Coronado.
The door narrowly missed two dozen sunbathers and came within inches of striking four young girls, who were the only ones in the pool at the Coronado Shores. The young swimmers said they were "scared to death" by the tumbling 5-by-6-foot door.
Each year hundreds of panels, flaps, fuel tanks, antennas, missiles and other parts routinely fly off high-performance Navy aircraft. Nearly two-thirds of these accidents are due to material failures or design deficiencies, according to Navy records.
Navy officials are quick to point out that the odds of a bystander being injured by an flying aircraft part are "remote" because most Navy flights take place over unpopulated areas.
However, Navy officials in Washington last year became so concerned about the "wide-scope problem" that they initiated an awareness and prevention program to cut down on the frequency of stray parts falling off Navy jets.
Part of their concern arose from the rapid growth of residential development around Navy air stations such as Miramar Naval Air Station.
Originally, the program was called Aircraft Component Retention Improvement Program. But as part of a Navy-wide push to eliminate gobbledygook and an attempt to drive home a safety message to aircraft personnel, Navy managers came up with an unusually direct title: "Things Falling Off Aircraft."
But the catchy name soon became just another Navy acronym--TFOA. Capt. Bruce Kenton said that when he first heard Navy officials refer to the program as "TOFA," he thought it was "something you eat."
TFOA is defined in Navy manuals as "a naval aviationwide problem in which aircraft parts or stores are unintentionally departing aircraft in flight." The program requires all Navy pilots and aircraft inspection crews to file written reports each time "any 'thing' leaves an aircraft without the intention of the crew," according to Navy manuals.
Since 1981, about 2,300 TFOA cases have been reported, according to statistics compiled by the Navy Safety Center in Norfolk, Va. The actual number of TFOA incidents is much higher because pilots were not required to report fallen parts until last year.
From January, 1985, through May of this year, Navy and Marine Corps pilots have reported a total of 1,282 TFOA incidents, according to a Navy spokesman in San Diego. Of those, 463 have occurred in the Navy's Pacific Fleet.
Despite the new strict reporting requirements, the Navy Safety Center declined to provide The Times with any TFOA statistics for Southern California or the entire Navy. A spokesman for the Navy Safety Center would only say that in 1985 about four TFOA incidents occurred for every 10,000 flight hours.
According to Navy officials, other military branches and commercial aviation do not keep track of similar statistics.
"It's not a problem unique to Navy aviation, although probably it is quite a bit more prevalent simply because we operate high performance jets in high-speed maneuvers," said Capt. Jim Morford, force safety officer for the Navy's Pacific Fleet. "That, basically, is the majority of the problem. . . . You put them under stress, bend the airplane (and) things pop occasionally. . . .
"We, fortunately, have suffered no fatal incidents from things falling off aircraft, at least not in my recollection."
Morford estimated that more than 95% of all TFOA incidents occur over water or remote areas where pilots exert stress on Navy jets by practicing bombing missions and flying at supersonic speeds. He said Navy pilots flying over populated areas are required to restrict their speed to 250 knots and not conduct tricky maneuvers.
Morford said that, with the exception of the Coronado swimming pool incident, he is not aware of another TFOA incident that threatened lives in Southern California.
"Of course, that's the bottom line," Morford said. "We don't want that to happen. We don't need that kind of grief, certainly."
However, The Times has learned of five cases since 1981 of Navy jets dropping heavy parts on or near Miramar Naval Air Station, which is surrounded by busy residential and commercial areas.
- Dec. 6, 1984: Two large fuel tanks, weighing about 2,000 pounds each, came crashing to the ground shortly after an F-14 Tomcat took off. The tanks landed at the end of the runway, and the jet returned safely.
- April 17, 1984: An F-14 landing at Miramar released a target-towing cable too early, causing a 12-pound pipe to fall on a furniture store truck traveling on Kearny Villa Road. The pipe and cable ripped two gaping holes in the truck, causing an estimated $15,000 in damage. The driver and his passenger said they could have been killed or seriously injured if the pipe had hit a foot closer.