The Air Force has cleared 60% of its F-15 fleet to resume operations, ending a two-month standdown that resulted from structural problems in the aging jets. Those problems were blamed for the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 in November that literally broke apart during routine training maneuvers.
Tuesday's return-to-flight order was issued by General John Corley, Commander of Air Combat Command, and covers about 265 F-15s, models A through D. That represents 60% of the service's air superiority F-15s. Corley made his decision after reviewing findings of the Missouri accident investigation board, and a briefing from structural experts representing Boeing, which builds the F-15.
However, Air Force Times reports that the service's remaining A/D model F-15s--a total of 175 aircraft--will remain grounded for at least another month. Their return to flight hinges on a study by the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Center, to determine their air-worthiness.
Analysis of the Missouri crash--and the on-going study--have focused on fatigue cracks in the F-15s forward longerons, which help ensure the aircraft's structural integrity. Cracks were found in the Eagle that went down in Missouri, and a subsequent, fleet-wide inspection turned up similar problems in nine other jets, assigned to both active duty and Air National Guard (ANG) units.
The Air Force's 224 multi-role F-15E Strike Eagles are not affected by the problem. After a brief standdown in November, they returned to operational service.
According to an Air Force statement, the F-15s which will remain grounded are "scattered across several squadrons." Those units were not identified.
Among units that were cleared to fly, operations resumed quickly. The 71st Fighter Squadron, one of the Air Force's original F-15 units, returned to the skies this morning with the launch of six jets at Langley AFB, Virginia. Four other Eagles flew this afternoon; the squadron is expected to resume a full flying schedule in the coming days, trying to complete training that was delayed by the standdown.
The resumption of F-15 operations at Langley was noted by the local paper, the Newport News Daily Press. However, the photo that accompanied the on-line story showed F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina--not the air superiority C and D models flown by the 71st. Oops.
Return of some F-15s to operational status will give military commanders greater flexibilty in accomplishing various missions, including air defense of the United States. The recent grounding affected several air defense units that fly the Eagle, forcing Air Force F-16 squadrons and Canadian CF-18s to assume greater responsibilities.
The F-15 standdown also affected Eagles operated by key U.S. allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan. It was unclear when those nations would clear their jets for flight. However, foreign F-15 customers have followed the U.S. lead in grounding and inspecting the aircraft.