Faltering Falcon: F-16 Accident Rate Rises as Air Force Seeks Cause

WASHINGTON – The F-16 fighter has spent most of the decade flying difficult missions in such trouble spots as the Persian Gulf and Bosnia, while compiling a solid safety record.

But Air Force officials have become concerned that the F-16, made by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, or the engines that power it might be showing their age.

The string of accidents began Oct. 22, when two F-16s collided in flight. One of the Fighting Falcons, flown by a student pilot, crashed and burned in the desert about 10 miles north of Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. The pilot ejected safely. The pilot of the other F-16 involved landed his plane and was not injured.

The string of accidents began Oct. 22, when two F-16s collided in flight. One of the Fighting Falcons, flown by a student pilot, crashed and burned in the desert about 10 miles north of Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. The pilot ejected safely. The pilot of the other F-16 involved landed his plane and was not injured.

In the first four months of fiscal year 1999, which began Oct. 1, nine F-16s have been destroyed and one pilot killed in accidents that have drawn the attention of top Air Force officials.

The F-16’s rate for “Class A” mishaps, those involving a death or $1 million in damages, stands at 6.52 per 100,000 flight hours so far in fiscal 1999.

Fourteen Fighting Falcons crashed in all of fiscal 1998 for a rate of 3.85, the worst annual rate the plane has recorded since 1994.

William Anderson, vice president for the F-16 program at Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, said the company has studied each crash and acknowledges a “spike” in accidents in fiscal 1998 and the first four months of fiscal 1999.

“We do recognize that 1998 was a spike up from what the last few years have been,” Anderson said. “We don’t consider 1998 to be a historically bad year, but it was an increase from where we were the last three or four years. It’s something we do pay very careful attention to. We would rather it have been under 2.” Anderson added that the company remains confident in the safety and performance of the F-16, which has been used by the Air Force since August 1978. Since then, Lockheed Martin anditspredecessor, GeneralDynamics, have delivered more than 3,800 Fighting Falcons to the Air Force and 18 foreign countries.

Anderson called the F-16 “the safest multirole aircraft in the history of the U.S. Air Force.”

Industry experts said the spike in the accident rate does not require drastic measures by the Air Force or the Pentagon.

“It’s not so high that they have to start considering grounding the F-16,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. “This is something that they will have to watch very closely, though.”

Gen. Mike Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters at a recent Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Fla., that the service is also looking closely at the cause for each F-16 accident.

“The big thing we have to do right now is focus on why our F-16s are going down,” Ryan said.

In November, three F-16s from three different Air Force bases went down. Two Falcons crashed in December and two more in January.

The latest mishap was Feb. 3, when another F-16 from Luke Air Force Base, participating in a training mission over the Barry M. Goldwater Range, crashed near Gila Bend, Ariz. The pilot ejected safely.

Lt. John Tews, a spokesman for Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va., said pilot error was the cause of the first November crash. But the two other November accidents, the two mishaps in December and the Jan. 7 crash of an F-16 at Luke were all blamed on engine failure.

Tews provided a list of the nine accidents in fiscal 1999 and their causes. Two of the incidents are still being investigated, he said.

Ryan acknowledged at the Orlando symposium that the Air Force has become increasingly concerned about the F-16’s engines, made by either General Electric or Pratt & Whitney. The government buys the engines and supplies them to Lockheed Martin for installation.

“For the most part, it’s the engines that are the problem,” Ryan said. “We have some operator problems, but mostly it’s the engines.”

The general said the source of the problem might be in the maintenance of the engines or their long-term reliability. He said the Air Force has requested money in its fiscal 2000 budget to improve engine performance and to buy more spare parts.

But Anderson of Lockheed Martin was reluctant to point to the engines as a major problem.

“It is certainly the case over the last few months that the engine stands out a little bit from other contributors,” he said. “But you have to be cautious about drawing lasting conclusions from samples taken over a short period of time.”

Maj. Chet Curtis, an Air Force spokesman on safety issues, said the service has not been able to locate a common cause.

“There isn’t any one thing you can point your finger to and say that’s the problem and then fix the problem,” he said. “We remain concerned about the safety of our pilots and preventing accidents, but the F-16 is a very effective and safe combat aircraft.”

The Air Force has wanted to update its F-16s for some time. It has 784 Falcons that are flown by active-duty pilots. Another 579 F-16s are flown by the National Guard and 72 by the Air Force Reserve.

The Air Force has ordered 10 F-16s in its budget for fiscal 2000 and plans to order at least 20 more by 2003. Air Force officials say the service hopes Congress will boost that number closer to 50 to make up for aircraft lost in accidents or taken out of operation.

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than at Luke, the Arizona base that trains Air Force F-16 pilots. Four of the accidents in fiscal 1999 have occurred at Luke, which is home to more than 200 F-16s, each of which cost about $25 million.

Last year, the 63rd Fighter Squadron, stationed at Luke, flew more than 5,900 sorties, the most of any Air Force squadron. But this month the base grounded its planes so pilots and maintenance crews could discuss safety and training procedures and allow the jets to be inspected.

The accident rate for F-16s has spiked in the past. In fiscal 1991, for example, 21 planes crashed, and the F-16 recorded a mishap rate of 4.55 per 100,000 flight hours. In 1988, 23 planes crashed, and the F-16 mishap rate was 6.8.

Michael D. Towle, (202) 383-6104 mtowle@krwashington.com

February 14, 1999

Fort Worth Star-Telegram