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Military-Wide Halt of Training Flights Ordered

September 18, 1997| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Jarred by a rash of military air crashes, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the first-ever military wide halt to training flights Wednesday.

Although officials have detected no common thread in the five accidents since last weekend, Cohen ordered all the services to ground their training flights for 24 hours. The stand-downs will be staggered over the week, starting Friday.

"Perfection is impossible, but that is our goal for aviation safety," Cohen said in taking the action.

Cohen's order comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Air Force, which today celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding as an independent service. Air Force officials said that although specific types of aircraft have been grounded before, there has never been an Air Force-wide grounding.

Five U.S. aircraft have crashed in recent days, including an Air Force F-117A Stealth fighter that partially broke up in flight at an air show in Maryland on Sunday. An Air Force C-141 transport went down off the coast of Namibia, a Marine Corps F/A-18 crashed off North Carolina, and a Navy F/A-18 crashed in Oman. In the latest mishap, two Air National Guard F-16s collided Tuesday off the coast of New Jersey; one crashed into the Atlantic, the other landed safely.

Cohen's grounding affects training but not operational flights. That means such missions as enforcing the "no-fly" zones over Iraq and supporting the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia will continue without interruption, officials said.

Officials could not provide an estimate of the number of training flights that will be missed.

Usually a temporary grounding affects the planes of only one service at a time. This is the first time all the services have been ordered to halt training flights, said Pentagon spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Nancy Burt.

In remarks to reporters at the Pentagon, Cohen said both the fliers and maintainers of military aircraft will use the day off to focus on safety. He said individual aircraft also will be examined for any possible safety problems.

Cohen left it to the service leaders to decide when they would begin the one-day stand-down. He said they could do it any day in the week starting Friday morning.

While acknowledging that there is not yet any indication of a common thread in the latest spate of accidents, Cohen said he decided a training break was needed--"just to reemphasize the safety issue."

Cohen stressed that military aviation safety has improved steadily in recent years. Last year was the safest on record, by the Pentagon's own accounting.

But, he said, given the recent rash of incidents, "we can do better."

The U.S. military actually has lost fewer aircraft in accidents this year--54, with less than two weeks remaining in the government's fiscal year--than in any recent year. It lost 67 last year, 69 in 1995 and 86 in 1994, according to Pentagon statistics.

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