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Ventura County

Navy Had Warnings on Jet Maintenance

Safety: Two workers at Point Mugu quit last year, citing problems in the QF-4 program. A week ago, two airmen died in an air show crash.

April 27, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The jet that crashed at the Point Mugu Air Show last weekend was in a maintenance program that two former Navy aircraft specialists warned officials last summer was plagued with problems and jeopardized the squadron of aging fighter planes.

Darrell Ellington, a mechanic on the QF-4 Phantoms, and Ken Okesson, a quality assurance specialist, said they quit their jobs last year because of persistent management and maintenance problems associated with the Point Mugu Naval Air Station's QF-4 jet program. They said they made their concerns known to officials at the Ventura County base in resignation letters and exit interviews.

So concerned was he about problems at the base, Ellington said this week, that when Navy Cmdr. Michael Norman, the pilot killed in last Saturday's air show crash, asked him why he was quitting, the mechanic responded bluntly.

"I told him they were going to crash an airplane and kill someone," said Ellington, who now lives in Oregon and continues to serve in the Air National Guard. "Or at least they were going to get someone hurt."

Ellington and Okesson's letters and verbal warnings echoed the concerns of a Navy inspector who two years earlier issued a highly critical report of Point Mugu's civilian-operated QF-4 maintenance program and warned of potential safety hazards. The report was part of a routine annual inspection.

Navy spokeswoman Mary Ann Freeman said Friday that employee resignation letters expressing concerns about safety or workplace issues "are always taken seriously. However, in this case there were no specific allegations cited upon which to act."

Confidential exit interviews were conducted with Ellington and Okesson, Freeman said. And Capt. Mike Rabens was briefed on their letters when he took over as commander of the Naval Test Wing Pacific last summer, she said.

Moreover, all concerns outlined in the inspector's 1999 report were addressed at the time and a follow-up investigation indicated that improvements were made, said Doris G. Lance, also a Navy spokeswoman. Squadrons are required to correct problems within 30 days or to submit plans that may require more time.

The QF-4 jet that crashed at the air show was just delivered to Point Mugu in February from the Naval Aviation Depot in Cherry Point, N.C., Lance said. The cause of the jet's crash has not been determined.

"The Navy is currently conducting a full investigation of the QF-4 mishap at Point Mugu," Lance said. "In the past 20 years, this is the only QF-4 flight mishap the Weapons Test Squadron has ever experienced, with over 118,000 accident-free flight hours logged."

U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has worked closely with base officials on a number of projects and issues, said he was unaware of employees' concerns involving the QF-4 program.

"It's disturbing that these things are coming forward because we have a very good dialogue with the guys on the flight line," said Gallegly, who was at the air show and witnessed the crash. "You can be assured we will be very aggressive in trying to get some answers to these allegations."

Norman, 39, of Camarillo and Marine Corps Capt. Andrew Muhs, 31, who lived on the naval air base, were killed when their two-seat Vietnam-era jet wobbled out of control and slammed into a marshy field west of the runway during Point Mugu's 39th annual air show. Norman was the pilot and Muhs the navigator.

Nearly 25,000 spectators witnessed the fiery crash, which occurred as the jet banked to the right after completing a maneuver about 500 feet above the runway. Another QF-4 and two F-14 Tomcats were also in the diamond formation. No one on the ground was injured.

Witnesses said they saw white smoke and flames shooting from one of the jet's engines moments before it plunged 500 feet to the ground and burst into flames.

Sources close to the crash investigation have said that nothing has been ruled out as a possible cause, including mechanical malfunction, faulty maintenance or even the possibility that birds were sucked into one or both of the jet's engines.

More Than 15 Years' Experience With Jet

Ellington and Okesson were assigned to the Ventura County base's Naval Weapons Test Squadron, which includes a fleet of more than 20 QF-4 fighter jets used in a missile test program.

Ellington spent more than a decade working on the jet, which is part of an early generation of military attack aircraft. Okesson worked the last five years as a quality assurance specialist for the QF-4.

Before that, Okesson spent nearly two decades working on the jet while in the Navy and as a civilian contractor. At that time, the jet was known as an F-4. The Q designation refers to aircraft that have been modified to serve as a target for military training purposes.

Ellington resigned in July, Okesson in August.

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