ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — Secretary of Defense William Perry, in what he calls one of his "management by walking around" tours, defended the controversial F-14 Tomcat jet Saturday but promised more than $80 million in upgrades in response to a recent string of crashes.
Visiting the carrier as part of a whirlwind tour of ships engaged in mock combat training off Southern California, Perry said the F-14 remains "one of the most effective fighters in the world today" and that 1994, 1995 and 1996 were the safest years yet in naval aviation.
"We must be doing something right," Perry said.
Still, after reviewing information about recent F-14 crashes, Perry said he would reallocate more than $80 million in the Department of Defense budget to retrofit F-14 models A, B and D with a new digital flight-control system.
The system will keep pilots from pushing the aircraft too fast and too hard and also keep the planes from going into an uncontrollable downward spin. More crashes are due to pilot error than mechanical malfunction, studies have shown. New flight rules have also been issued to F-14 pilots about speed, altitude and maneuverability.
The upgraded flight-control systems, already present in the newer F/A-18 jets, "will prevent the pilot from making unsafe or unauthorized maneuvers," Perry said, "and it does not put quite such a burden on the pilot to remember what he can do and should not do in certain conditions."
The Navy, with Perry's approval, last month ordered a three-day stand-down of all 337 F-14s worldwide after three F-14s based at San Diego's Miramar Naval Air Station crashed within a month. Half of the F-14 fleet is based at Miramar, the rest at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia.
An F-14A crashed Jan. 29 in Nashville, killing two crewmen and three civilians; an F-14D crashed off the San Diego coast Feb. 18, killing two crewmen; and an F-14A crashed in the Persian Gulf on Feb. 22 but the crew ejected safely. The F-14D, which the Navy is trying to retrieve from the ocean bottom, was flying off the Vinson.
The crashes renewed criticism of the F-14, particularly the older model F-14As, which are slated to be phased out in a decade. The F-14 is the Navy's main air-to-air combat aircraft.
The F-14s based on the carrier Independence are now taking part in exercises near Taiwan as a sign to the Communist government in Beijing of the United States' determination to defend that tiny island nation.
In addition to the digital flight-control system, Perry has also ordered that $3 million be reallocated to provide F-14s with a warning light in the cockpit to warn pilots of valve problems. In the older models, there is no such light, and pilots must tell by "feel" or sound that such a valve is stuck, which can lead to an engine stalling out.
Such was the case in the 1994 crash of Navy Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the first woman to fly the F-14. A valve stuck on one engine but there was nothing on the instrument panel to indicate this danger sign.
As a result, by the time Hultgreen realized one engine had stalled as she attempted to land on the carrier Abraham Lincoln, it was a quarter of a second too late to eject safely. The navigator, whose ejection seat is activated first, survived the crash, but Hultgreen ejected almost straight into the water and died instantly.
"I do not anticipate any difficulty getting that money," said Perry during an impromptu news conference in the hangar bay of the Alameda-based carrier, which has a crew of 5,500 and up to 80 airplanes, including F-14 squadrons from Miramar Naval Air Station.
The Vinson, which was about 50 miles off San Diego during Perry's visit, is engaging in training exercises involving 29 ships of the 3rd Fleet.
Capt. Hamlin "Ham" Tallent, commander of the air group aboard the Vinson, said the new equipment mentioned by Perry will be helpful, but not a cure-all.
"The F-14 is a difficult plane to fly, there's no denying that," he said, attributing that difficulty, in part, to its size and wingspread. The plane is designed to fly twice the speed of sound.
Perry agreed that even with upgraded gear, "I would remind you that flying an F-14 or F/A-18 is extremely difficult." Thirty-two F-14s have crashed since 1991.
Tallent said that the recent loss of pilots has not unduly hurt morale. "It's one of those things you don't forget," he said, "but you can't let it keep you from doing the job."
Lt. Rick Lucas, an F-14D pilot, said that pilots know both the dangers of naval aviation and the dangers of the F-14. "The F-14 gets a bum rap, but it's mostly a media/political rap," he said.
One of the raps against the F-14A is that its engine is simply not powerful enough. Perry, a professor of engineering on leave from Stanford University, rejects that argument.
He said in the late 1970s, when he was undersecretary of defense for weapons procurement in the Carter administration, the F-14 and several other planes went through engine modifications. Still, he made at least a semantical distinction between the F-14As, which have Pratt and Whitney engines, and the B and D models, which have engines made by General Electric.
The engines in the newer models, he said, "are entirely adequate for their purpose." The engines in the F-14A, he said, have been upgraded so that they are "adequate."