Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eagle Down

The Air Force is investigating yesterday's crash of an F-15D Eagle on the Nevada Test Range and Training Range, about 50 miles east of Goldfield, Nevada.

One of the two pilots in the aircraft has been declared dead; the other was rescued and taken to the Mike O'Callaghan Hospital at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas. Both the aircraft and its crew were based at Nellis.

A base spokesman said the jet went down around 11:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday, during a training mission that was part of Red Flag 08-03. The semi-annual combat training exercise was temporarily suspended while rescue and recovery crews responded to the crash.

The F-15 and its pilots were part of the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis, which replicates the tactics and equipment of potential adversaries. One of two aggressor units assigned to the base, the 65th was resurrected two years ago, part of an Air Force plan to provide more realistic threat training for aircrews.

Aggressor units were also active at Nellis for three decades, stretching from 1969 until 1989. During that period, the 65th and other aggressor squadrons were primarily equipped with the F-5E Tiger II, which simulated earlier Soviet-bloc aircraft, including the MiG-21 Fishbed.

With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force eliminated its aggressor units in the late 1980s. They were resurrected in 2006 by former Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley.

There are currently two aggressor units at Nellis, the 65th and the 64th. The latter unit is equipped with F-16s, which replicate the capabilities of the MiG-29 Fulcrum and similar jets. The F-15s of the 65th simulate the performance of the Russian-built SU-27 Flanker.

The Air Force has not released the names of the officers involved in Wednesday's crash. In From the Cold has confirmed the identity of the dead pilot, but out of respect to the individual and surviving family members, we will not publish the name prior to release by the Air Force.

Sources at Nellis tell this blog that the pilot who died was one of the senior members of the squadron.

In From the Cold has also learned that Major General Mark Matthews, the Chief of Requirements at Air Combat Command Headquarters, will head the panel of officers who will investigate the crash. General Matthews is a veteran F-15 pilot; ACC is the parent organization of the Nellis-based Air Warfare Center, which responsible for the aggressor squadrons and other flying units at the base.

The crash is the second since the entire F-15 fleet was grounded late last year. That grounding followed the loss of a Missouri ANG Eagle last November, an incident that was blamed on structural fatigue that caused the jet to come apart in mid-air. The pilot of the Missouri F-15 was able to eject from the aircraft and survived.

An F-15 assigned to the Hawaii ANG crashed in February of this year, about five weeks after the jets returned to operational service. That pilot also survived. An Air Force investigation determined that the accident was not related to the structural issues in the Missouri crash.

Most of the USAF's remaining F-15s are single seat "C" models. There are only a handful of two-seat "D" models, and that number was depleted further by yesterday's crash. According to an Air Force fact sheet, there are currently 522 F-15s in the inventory. A number of U.S. allies, including Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia also operate the air superiority fighter.

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