WASHINGTON — The Navy grounded its entire fleet of F-14 warplanes Thursday after one of the twin-engine Tomcat fighters crashed into the Persian Gulf, the controversial plane's third crash in less than a month.
A Navy spokesman, Lt. Greg Geisen, said that both crewmen survived the crash during air operations off the aircraft carrier Nimitz. Although the Nimitz is helping to enforce the "no fly" zone over Iraq, the F-14 involved in the incident was engaged in routine training not directly related to the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.
The accident followed the crash off the California coast on Sunday of an F-14 from the carrier Carl Vinson and a crash of another F-14 near Nashville late last month. All four crewmen were killed in the earlier crashes.
"In light of the three recent mishaps involving both F-14 A's and Ds, the Navy has ordered a 72-hour stand-down," Geisen said. "It is prudent to temporarily suspend routine flight operations for all F-14s . . . to assess available information and determine if any procedural or other modifications to F-14 operations are warranted."
Geisen described the grounding as a "collective deep breath" to allow the Navy to review procedures, operations and training.
Each of the last three planes to crash was based at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, although all were from different squadrons.
The $32-million F-14 has been the mainstay of carrier-based aviation for more than two decades. Although the warplane has long attracted criticism, it remains the Navy's most effective air superiority fighter, providing air cover for the carrier battle group and for ground-attack aircraft.
The latest crash was the 32nd by an F-14 since 1991. The Navy has 337 of the planes, which were produced by Grumman Aircraft, now a part of Northrop Grumman. Hundreds of others have been sold to foreign countries.
The plane that crashed Thursday and the one that was lost Jan. 29 near Nashville were older A-model planes which are due to be retired by 2004. The plane that crashed Sunday was a newer D-model, scheduled to remain in service until 2010, when a new first-line fighter is expected to be ready.
In a recently published book that is sharply critical of virtually all aspects of the Navy, author Gregory L. Vistica accuses the service's leadership of failing to replace the Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines on the A-model aircraft even though the Navy determined years ago that the engine was not adequate.
"The admirals decided it was cheaper to lose a few jets than to spend more than $2.5 billion on new equipment," Vistica, a Newsweek correspondent, wrote. In a telephone interview Thursday, Vistica said that the F-14A "has a real propensity to stall and go into a flat spin." He said that pilots are trained to deal with the problem but often are unable to do so.
The B and D models of the aircraft have newer General Electric engines.
Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the first woman pilot to fly the F-14, was killed while trying to land an F-14 on an aircraft carrier near San Diego on Oct. 25, 1994. A Navy investigation blamed engine failure, not pilot error, for that crash.
Tony Cantafio, a spokesman for Century City-based Northrop Grumman, declined to comment on the crashes or the three-day grounding of the aircraft, referring all questions to the Navy. He would say only: "We will provide technical assistance to support the Navy analysis."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said that he plans a hearing before the House National Security subcommittee on military procurement on the F-14's safety record. Hunter is chairman of the subcommittee. He made the announcement with Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), a decorated fighter pilot.
After the Jan. 29 crash of a Miramar-based F-14 near Nashville, which also killed three people on the ground, the Navy relieved the commander of Fighter Squadron 213 of command for what was officially called a lack of confidence. It also grounded the squadron for 10 days while the planes were examined and pilots participated in safety discussions.
In a joint statement Hunter and Cunningham said: "Too many lives and too much equipment have been lost. We will look into the possibility that the [Clinton] administration is underfunding both the readiness and modernization of Navy aircraft."
Cunningham, who still flies the F-14 and the newer F/A-18 to test new gear, said that he is upset that he was blocked from adding money to the defense budget to upgrade F-14 engines by opponents who called it "pork."
Times staff writer Tony Perry from San Diego contributed to this story.