Navy begins tests at Patuxent River to replace Tomcat 3-year program begins after grounding of F-14s

February 24, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A new generation fighter to replace the Navy's aging and troubled F-14 Tomcat -- grounded temporarily Thursday after a third crash in a month -- is being flight tested at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

A three-year program to prove the mettle of the F-18E and F-18F Super Hornet as the nation's premier carrier-based attack jet for the beginning of the 21st century started at the Southern Maryland base this week. The program, budgeted at more than $100 million, will support 400 high-paying engineering and scientific jobs.

The twin-finned, single-seat F-18E and its two-seat counterpart, the F-18F, are $35 million multimission jets designed to operate from aircraft carriers as the Navy's first-line fighter in place of the F-14, which entered service in 1973.

The Navy ordered all 337 of its F-14s grounded for three days Thursday after the crash of a Tomcat operating from the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. The crew of two ejected safely. Ten F-14s have crashed in the last two years, 32 since 1991, an accident rate that has provoked increasing concern.

The grounding of the entire fleet was not ordered for any specific mechanical reason but to give Navy aviators and engineers a chance, in the words of Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, to "rack their brains" for possible explanations of the crashes.

The effort to replace the Tomcats is gaining steam at Patuxent. Seven of the Super Hornets will be evaluated in the Patuxent River program before the plane makes its first carrier flight in January 1997.

If the F-18E/F gets the thumbs up from its evaluators in Maryland, the Navy plans to buy 1,000 of the planes by 2014, with the first Super Hornets entering operational service in 2001.

The new fighter is larger and stronger, has a longer range and packs more fire power than its predecessors in the 14-year-old F-18 range. Its war role will be to establish U.S. air superiority, launch precision missile attacks or provide close air support for ground troops.

It has taken nine years to develop the latest model, built by McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Hughes. The program is on time and on budget. The plane is also 1,000 pounds under its targeted weight, giving the Navy leeway to add more weapons, fuel or other systems.

"When was the last time you heard of an aircraft program being on-cost, on-schedule and underweight at the time of first flight?" asked Michael M. Sears, general manager of McDonnell Douglas.

The first two F-18Es arrived at Patuxent River last week to begin a rigorous series of tests of their air frames, flight capabilities, electronics and weapons systems. The twin-seat F-18F will arrive later to be tested at Patuxent River, which has become the

Navy's major flight evaluation center.

Among the tests the fighter will be subjected to are what test pilots call the "shake, rattle and roll." The fighter will be shot by a carrier-style catapult, accelerating from 0 to 165 mph in two seconds, and will be deliberately banged down hard on the runway to simulate operations from the heavy deck of a carrier. It will also be subjected to more than twice the gravitational stress normally inflicted on a fighter plane.

"We have good wards and a good hospital down here. We are going to do everything we can for this airplane," said Capt. Raymond Dudderar, commander of the Atlantic Naval Test Wing. The F-18E/F will be put through its paces by a team of experts from government and industry in the first such public-private flight test partnership. Previously the experts checked planes separately and sequentially.

In the F-18E/F program they will work side by side, with five Navy test pilots and five company pilots sharing the flight time equally as they "push the envelope" to the outer edges of the plane's performance.

A Navy pilot and a McDonnell Douglas pilot were at the controls of the two F-18Es when they arrived in Maryland from the manufacturing plant in St. Louis, Mo. Frederic Madenwald, McDonnell Douglas's F-18E/F project pilot who first took the F-18E aloft, said, "The handling qualities so far have been superb."

At a ceremony to open the program at Patuxent River on Thursday, Capt. Joseph W. Dyer, the F-18E/F program manager, said: "We are bringing together government test pilots and industry test pilots, government flight test engineers and industry flight test engineers into a place in Southern Maryland where we have made a Navy investment to build a world-class, premier flight test facility."

While many military bases have been closed or reduced during recent Pentagon budget cuts, the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River has assumed increasing responsibilities, building new facilities and aviation test beds.

"There is no place on the face of this earth that can match the capabilities that Pax River can bring to bear," said Cmdr. Robert Wirt, the F-18E/F flight test director.

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