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F-14 Crashes Raise Questions of Age, Safety

Military: Navy says four mishaps were aberrations. But it admits the Tomcat is a fading warhorse.


MIRAMAR NAVAL AIR STATION, Calif. — Navy Lt. Jim Nolan can recall his first bad encounter with the F-14 Tomcat jet fighter as though it happened yesterday. It was 1992, and Nolan was flying the supersonic plane over the Virginia seacoast. Suddenly an engine caught fire.

Within seconds, the flames burned through the plane's flight controls, leaving the aircraft unflyable and forcing Nolan into a risky bailout over the water. Rescued later by fishermen, he questioned whether he should continue flying at all.

Since then, Nolan, now a flight instructor who has flown his way through a spate of less serious emergencies, has come to accept this as part of the challenge of piloting the Tomcat, which was romanticized in the movie "Top Gun."

"I still love the F-14," he insisted.

But some are beginning to question whether the challenge is getting out of hand. Over the last few months, the F-14 has been catapulted onto the front page by a spate of major accidents, including a Jan. 29 crash in Nashville in which three civilians died.

At the same time, a series of recent tragedies--including Friday's deadly collision of two Marine helicopters in North Carolina and the crash of an Air Force T-43A passenger jet carrying Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 34 others--has heightened concerns about safety in military aviation generally.

Military officials contend that these mishaps are aberrations. A preliminary probe by the Navy has found that there is "no common thread" in the recent F-14 crashes. Each has involved a different cause, from mechanical failure to pilot error.

Had it not been for the unusually grim crackup in Nashville, says Rear Adm. Dennis V. McGinn, who heads the naval aviation program, "about all that would have made the papers" concerning the other accidents "would have been a few paragraphs' " mention.

"Every single aircraft we have has idiosyncrasies," he said.

Even so, Navy officials acknowledge that the F-14 is an aging warhorse in the Navy's fighter fleet--it entered active service in 1973--and that a public impression is growing that time has passed it by.

Twenty-five years ago, the aircraft was state of the art. Now, in comparison to newer technology, it seems hard to maneuver in tight spots, prone to engine stall and sometimes physically taxing to control.

"The F-14 has for years had the reputation that you have to fly the engine, not the airplane," said retired Rear Adm. James Winnefeld, referring to one of the airplane's most controversial elements. "To fly the F-14 well, you have to be a damned good pilot."

Four F-14s have crashed in the last three months. During the last four years, the crash rate for the F-14--the number of major mishaps for each 100,000 flying hours--has soared to more than twice that of the late 1980s, a development that Navy officials are unable to explain.

By contrast, the Navy's newer fighters, such as the F/A-18 Hornet, have more advanced flight-control and safety systems, are more user-friendly--and incur fewer casualties as a result. The crash rate for the F/A-18 is four mishaps for every 100,000 hours, compared to the F-14's 8.55 rate last year. (Commercial airliners, with different equipment and no need to simulate combat conditions, averaged 0.261 last year.)

In the wake of the recent crashes, the Navy has begun looking at whether the aircraft is becoming more prone to mechanical failures and whether its pilots are receiving enough training on safety. It is also studying ways to compensate for outdated technology.

But Adm. Jay L. Johnson, vice chief of naval operations, told Congress that the Navy has already decided not to proceed with one possible improvement--replacing the trouble-prone engine on the early-model F-14A--because that would be too costly on a plane that is being phased out.

Don M. Snider, a former Pentagon strategist, says the saga of the F-14 reflects the kind of delicate balancing act that today's military planners now face between upgrading aging equipment and saving the money to buy newer weapons that can provide them with a future tactical edge.

With the Cold War over, Snider points out, the military services' modernization budget has plunged to $39 billion, from $124 billion in 1986. With no immediate threat on the horizon, he contends, "it's only prudent" for the Navy to channel its dollars to next-generation weapon systems.

The problem is that although the F-14 is being phased out, it remains the Navy's premier fighter plane for the time being, and it still has a large mission. The distinctive twin-tailed fighter, with movable swept wings that can be pushed forward during landings, initially joined the force as an interceptor, and it continues to bear major responsibility for protecting American carrier battle groups from air attack.

It was part of the Navy force deployed in Operation Desert Storm and was used heavily in Bosnia, both to enforce the no-fly zone and to drop bombs on Bosnian Serb targets.

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