Friday, April 06, 2012

Hornet Down

Wreckage of a Navy F/A-18 burns, after the jet crashed into a Virginia Beach apartment complex today. (AP photo via Yahoo News)

It was another reminder of the inherent dangers associated with military aviation: a Navy F/A-18 Hornet crashed into an apartment complex in Virginia Beach this afternoon, just moments after taking off from NAS Oceana. Both pilots ejected safely from the stricken aircraft; public safety officials said at least five people were hurt on the ground, but none apparently suffered serious injuries.

As of this writing, there have been no confirmed fatalities, but the mayor of Virginia Beach suggested that some bodies might be found in the wreckage of two apartment buildings that were destroyed as the jet plowed into them. The F/A-18, which apparently suffered a major mechanical malfunction, slammed into Mayfair Mews Apartment Complex off Birdneck Road, near Interstate I-264.

An eyewitness account from the Virginian-Pilot:

Amy Miller works at a cleaners on Birdneck Road and said she was outside when she saw a plane coming down with fire on its wing. The plane looked like it was heading east and came from behind the shopping center and over it

"I saw two parachutes eject. I saw them open up and then head toward the ground to the right of the jet."

About two seconds later it crashed. It appeared to have its landing gear down, she said.

She lives in Birdneck Village Apartments and ran up the street towards her apartment where her family was to make sure it hadn't been hit.

Her manager ran inside and called 911. They have customers who live in Mayfair Mews Apartments - which is for adults 55 and older - and have been trying to call them but they haven't answered the phone.

She saw where the jet crashed: "It looked like it had either hit the building or slid into it.

Part of the building had crumpled up."

Today's crash will almost certainly re-ignite the safety debate associated with military jets operating over the urban and suburban neighborhoods of Virginia Beach. When NAS Oceana was built during World War II, it was surrounded by farmlands and swamps. Over the decades that followed, Virginia Beach grew from a sleepy resort town into Virginia's largest city, and developers built neighborhoods and shopping areas that eventually surrounded the naval airfield.

Concerns about safety led the BRAC commission (in 2005) to recommend that changes for Oceana--as a condition for remaining open. The panel mandated that the city of Virginia Beach buy (and condemn) more than 3,000 residences--and an unknown number of businesses--in "crash zones" around the base. Progress on that front has been slow, but there are few options other than Oceana. Proposals to re-activate Cecil Field, Florida (outside Jacksonville) as an F/A-18 base hit a snag seven years ago, when the city removed itself from the process.

Fact is, it would be extraordinarily expensive to transfer all--or even some--of Oceana's functions to another base. In today's defense budget environment, there is simply no money for that sort of move. Additionally, the Navy has been unable to push through plans for an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in rural Virginia or North Carolina, which could absorb some of the training now conducted at Oceana. Opposition to that proposal led the Navy to shelve plans for the OLF, and it won't be reconsidered until 2014, at the earliest. That means the operations tempo (and the noise) at Oceana will continue, unabated, for the foreseeable future.

To be fair, the Navy has maintained an enviable safety record at Oceana. During eight decades of flight ops, there have been only a handful of crashes, resulting in few fatalities and very limited property damage. As more than one resident observed, you're far more likely to meet your maker in a crash on I-264, as opposed to an F/A-18 slamming into your home or apartment building.

But there are more pressing concerns about the age of Navy aircraft and how well they are maintained. A recent article in Aviation Week detailed a decade of cuts to the Navy budget for aircraft procurement and maintenance. According to reporter Michael Fabey, Pentagon leaders have already shaved $3 billion from the service's funding for air operations and maintenance in FY'2013. Navy officials admit there are "certain risks" associated with reduced maintenance funding for an aging tactical aircraft fleet.

At this point, it's too early to tell if budget cuts played any role in today's crash. But the current funding formula is hardly a recipe for flight safety. Making matters worse, the heightened ops tempo of the past decade means F/A-18s are on pace to reach their service life limits ahead of schedule. Last fall, Defense Industry Daily reported that some Marine Corps F/A-18s are approaching 8,500 flight hours on the airframe. Even with Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) upgrades, the Hornets can fly only 10,000 hours before retirement.

In the same article, the Navy's F/A-18 program manager reported that flight time for his aircraft is running about 30% above projections each year. A number of Navy Hornets have also passed the 8,000 hour mark, though their accident rate remains low. Many of the F/A-18s are slated for replacement by the Navy version of the F-35 stealth fighter, but that program has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. As a result, more aging Hornets will remain with the fleet much longer than planned, and Navy mechanics will have less money to keep them flying.

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