While the world media has been focused on yesterday's crash landing of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport, the following aviation-related announcement caught our eye; from Reuters, via Yahoo News:
An Israeli F16 warplane crashed at sea on Sunday due to an engine malfunction and Israel subsequently grounded all its F15 and F16 combat aircraft pending a review of the incident, a military spokesman said.
The pilot and navigator on board managed to safely bail out of the U.S.-made plane and a military rescue unit came to evacuate them by helicopter, the spokesman and Israeli media reports said.
"An F16 combat aircraft crashed earlier today in the sea after the engine malfunctioned," the spokesman said. He added that the air force commander had decided to "ground all F16 and F15 planes until circumstances of the incident are reviewed."
Israel's decision strikes us as a bit odd, for a couple of reasons. First, operating a single-en gine fighter (like the F-16) carries certain hazards, including limited options when the powerplant quits working. We know an Air Force F-16 driver that managed to "dead stick" a Viper into Kunsan AB, Korea, back in the early 1990s, from a distance of almost 20 miles. That pilot had the good fortune to be at high altitude (20,000) when his GE engine gave up the ghost, giving him enough time and speed to make flawless emergency landing without power. For his efforts, he received an Air Medal, one of the few awarded in peace time.
But for most Viper pilots, the sudden loss of your engine usually leaves two choices: get it on the ground--and fast--or grab the handles and eject. We know another F-16 pilot who had to bail out from an older "A" model in the late 80s, just moments after takeoff. He later told us: "I knew it was time to get out when I saw the flames go shooting past the cockpit." That particular pilot got two "swings" in his chute before he touched down, just off the end of the runway. Based on limited evidence, it sounds like the two-person crew of the IAF F-16 had a similar choice. When their engine failed off the Gaza coast, they had no choice but to eject, since Israeli warplanes don't "divert" to Palestinian airports.
Needless to say, the IAF has lots of experience in F-16 operations and losses of aircraft (and pilots) in the past has not resulted in the grounding of the entire fleet, as well as their F-15 squadrons (which utilize the same type of Pratt & Whitney engine. Wide-scale stand downs typically occur in response to a catastrophic failure, such as the cracked longeron that caused a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 to break apart in-flight five years ago. That accident prompted the grounding of all F-15s around the world, until their longerons--a critical component that helps hold the aircraft together--could be inspected. We've never heard of an engine issue forcing a fleet-wide grounding, particularly when you consider that the Pratt & Whitney and GE engines used in various F-16 models have outstanding reliability and safety records.
It's also a bit strange that the IAF would ground the two aircraft responsible for the much of its offensive and defensive capabilities. With scores of Eagles and Vipers on the ground, it's practically an invitation to Israel's foes to mount some sort of aerial action, ranging from a UAV mission (like the one staged by Iran and Hizballah a few months ago), to an actual air strike by Iranian assets, or the Syrian Air Force.
And that brings us to another possibility: is today's crash being used as some sort of deception plan? As we've noted in the past, the Israelis are masters at tactical and strategic deception; virtually every major military operation in the history of the Jewish state has been preceded by some sort of deception operation. Before the 1967 war, for example, Israeli TV showed footage of soldiers on holiday, enjoying a trip to the beach, while preparations for the lightning strike against their Arab foes were underway. The IAF also conducted "feint" operations for weeks before that conflict, flying up to the edge of Egyptian airspace before turning back. The flights became so routine that the Egyptian Air Force stopped responding to them. On the first day of the war, the Israelis simply didn't turn back, and destroyed the EAF on the ground.
How would the current grounding fit into a deception plan? Many major air operations are preceded by a maintenance stand down, giving maintenance crews enough time to prepare a maximum nuber of jets for combat. If key F-15I and F-16I units suddenly stopped flying, foreign intelligence services would instantly lock onto that development as a possible sign of an impending Israeli strike. But with all IAF F-15 and F-16 squadrons on the ground, it will be easier for the IAF to mask potential raid preparations.
One more thought: in all likelihood, the F-16 that crashed today is still at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. It's difficult to see how the IAF could determine the exact cause of engine failure so quickly--and deduce that today's problem could affect all front-line fighters. All modern air forces lose jets to engine failure on a regular basis; such mishaps are rarely enough to warrant the grounding of the entire fleet, even when the powerplants have a history of problems. But today's mishap does give the IAF a valid reason to put their jets on the ground and get ready for whatever lies ahead.
In closing, we offer this final tidbit: the coming days represent a period of extremely low lunar illumination in Iran--ideal conditions for a night attack against Tehran's nuclear facilities. Yes, it's quite a stretch from an Israeli F-16 crash to a potential strike against Iran. But today's crash in the Mediterranean does give the IAF a rather convenient excuse to put a lot of planes on the ground--for preventive maintenance and inspections--at just the right time.