WASHINGTON -- Two Air Force pilots died yesterday when their F-111F fighter-bomber crashed on a pre-dawn training mission in the Arabian Peninsula -- the latest in a rash of accidents that have killed as many as 31 Americans since President Bush dispatched U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf two months ago.
The Navy also ended its search for eight Marines lost and presumed killed in Monday's crash of two UH-1N Huey helicopters over the North Arabian Sea, Marine Corps officials said.
Search teams found floating debris, including parts from each aircraft, but they discovered no sign of any survivors.
The U.S. casualties, many stemming from high-risk nighttime flying exercises, have continued to mount despite claims by military officials in the early days of Operation Desert Shield that U.S. military personnel were exceptionally trained and well-equipped for desert warfare, especially at night.
Even without a shooting war, the death toll already exceeds the total of 23 Americans killed during the invasion of Panama in December.
But so far, only the Army has imposed new restrictions on training flights, with other military services insisting on the adequacy and stringency of their safety precautions.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said that none of the services has raised the possibility of ordering a temporary suspension of training exercises and requiring commanders to review safety and operating procedures with their units.
The Navy took this step last November, and the Marines Corps briefly stood down its entire aviation force in June 1989 after a succession of fatal mishaps in a short period.
Five Army helicopters have crashed into sand dunes during night flying exercises; none of the crashes was fatal. But two incidents involving terrain-hugging night flights by OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters prompted the Army on Sept. 13 to restrict all training with night-vision goggles to altitudes of 150 feet or higher until pilots "have achieved a basic level of proficiency" in the desert, Maj. Nancy Burt said.
She and others said there has been no evidence so far of any aircraft or equipment failure, nor any reason to blame the goggles -- which help pilots see in the dark but limit their peripheral vision -- for the accidents.
"Some of the sand dunes are 120 feet high, and sometimes sand dunes are not in the same place every time because of the winds," said Major Burt, noting that dunes of this size do not exist at the Army's principal desert training site at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Because scout helicopters, which locate targets for missile-firing Apache helicopters, usually fly close to the ground to avoid enemy radar, the low-level flying restrictions would not apply to any "tactical flying" or actual combat missions, she said.
In Saudi Arabia, Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, who commands U.S. Army forces there, told reporters recently that a computer analysis showed a "surprisingly low" rate of accidents among service personnel -- lower than figures for comparable forces in the United States.
The U.S. Central Command reported yesterday that 23 Americans have been killed in accidents since the U.S. deployment began Aug. 7.
With eight Marines presumed dead and another Marine dead of a self-inflicted wound, the U.S. death toll stood at 32.
The Air Force gave few details about yesterday's accident involving an F-111F assigned to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath in England.
Oct. 10 -- A U.S. Air Force F-111F fighter-bomber crashes, killing both crew members.
Oct. 8 -- Two U.S. pilots die in the crash of an RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance jet. Two UH-1N helicopters, carrying eight Marines, vanish during a training flight over the North Arabian Sea.
Sept. 30 -- Two Air Force pilots are killed when their F-15 crashes during an exercise.
Sept. 26 -- A Marine Corps staff sergeant dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Sept. 20 -- An Army specialist is killed in a vehicle accident.
Sept. 14 -- An Army officer is killed when his vehicle leaves the roadway and crashes.
Aug. 29 -- A C-5A transport aircraft loaded with supplies for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf crashes and burns shortly after takeoff in Germany, killing 13 crew members.
Aug. 21 -- An electrician's mate aboard the USS Antietam is electrocuted in an accident.
Aug. 12 -- An Air Force staff sergeant dies after being hit by a military truck on a darkened runway.