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Investigators Can't Find Link Among Navy Plane Crashes

February 27, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The commander of the Navy's Pacific Air Fleet said Monday that investigators have been unable to find a common link among a string of recent crashes, and he defended the controversial F-14 Tomcat, which will be the subject of a congressional probe Thursday.

Vice Adm. Brent M. Bennitt said that reviews done during the recent three-day safety standdown for all 330 of the Navy's F-14s worldwide proved to the Navy's satisfaction that the F-14 is safe.

"Part of the reason we're having this review in the F-14 community is to ensure we have a safe airplane and we're comfortable we do," Bennitt said. Three of the supersonic fighters from Miramar Naval Air Station have crashed in recent weeks. The crew killed in the last crash, on Saturday, included Lt. Thomas R. Francis, a 27-year-old pilot from Fountain Valley.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) will convene a hearing Thursday to examine the F-14's safety record. Thirty-two have crashed since 1991.

Hunter and Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) have bitterly complained that cutbacks in defense spending during the Clinton administration have kept the Navy from upgrading the older models of F-14s and thus have endangered the lives of fliers.

Bennitt, while saying he felt Hunter's hearing will be "constructive," turned aside the argument put forth by Hunter and Cunningham. "We would always like to have newer aircraft," he said, "but we are flying safe aircraft and I think the air crews would agree with that."

But, he added, all aircraft need to be operated within their own their speed and maneuverability limits.

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