All stealth jet fighters grounded Air Force seals off crash site as search for parts continues

Pilot in good condition

Air Combat Command to probe safety, legal aspects of accident

September 16, 1997|By Mark Matthews and Dail Willis | Mark Matthews and Dail Willis,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Greg Schneider contributed to this article.

As investigators searched an eastside Baltimore County neighborhood yesterday for pieces of a downed F-117A jet, the U.S. Air Force announced that it had grounded all 52 of the stealth fighters in its fleet for at least a week as a precaution.

Preliminary reports about Sunday's crash, which was triggered when a piece of the plane broke off, indicate a structural problem, an Air Force official said. But investigators were also preparing to examine other aspects of the crash of the F-117A, which gained prominence in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"We know what happened -- the wing came off. Why did the wing come off?" said U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who is a member of the National Security Committee.

Bartlett toured the Bowleys Quarters crash scene yesterday and said the plane was surprisingly intact, with a wing having come to rest under the wheel of a parked truck. Many small parts were scattered about, marked with flags, he said, adding, "Some of them are so small you'd have to be standing right over it to see it."

The pilot of the single-seat plane, Maj. Bryan Knight, was released in good condition from a hospital at Andrews Air Force Base after being treated for what an Air Force spokesman called "amazingly minor neck and back injuries."

Officials said Knight, who ejected from the falling plane, would not speak publicly at least until he had been interviewed by investigators.

The crash occurred in midafternoon less than a half-mile from Martin State Airport, where about 12,000 people had paid $10 to $12 to watch the annual air show sponsored by the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce. The plane crashed into a Chester Road home, setting it on fire, and about a dozen people were slightly injured.

Airplane parts recovered

The wing that came off was found at the airport, three-quarters of a mile from the crash site, said Col. Michael Wright, who is rTC heading the Air Force Interim Investigation Board. Other parts of the plane went into the water and have been retrieved, he said.

Wright said that the information from the flight data recorder had not yet been processed. He said the interim board would preserve the crash site until the permanent investigatory board, led by Col. Mark Dougherty of Hill Air Force Base, convenes, probably tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon was probing the mysterious Saturday disappearance -- and possible midair collision -- of an Air Force cargo plane with a German air force plane off the coast of Africa; nine Americans and 24 Germans were feared dead. In another incident, a Navy F-A-18 fighter crashed Sunday in Oman, killing the pilot.

Armed guards

Yesterday, armed Air Force guards formed a tight ring of security around the Bowleys Quarters crash site, where about a dozen families had been evacuated.

The Virginia-based Air Combat Command, under which fighters, bombers and missiles are organized, will open two probes into the accident. A safety investigation, intended to prevent a repeat of the crash, will include an investigating officer, a pilot trained to fly an F-117 and draw on experts in maintenance, medicine and (( safety. Some witness testimony will be kept private, officials say.

A separate legal probe will determine whether anyone should be disciplined and will gather evidence that might be used in a court case.

The plane's manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin, had its engineers examining the videotape of the crash at its Skunk Works design and manufacturing plant in California. "We're prepared to assist the Air Force in any way they desire," said company spokesman Ron Lindeke.

Safety record

F-117s of the type that crashed have had eight previous mishaps, ranging from fatal crashes to relatively minor failures of landing gear. The earliest accidents occurred when the plane was still part of a highly classified research project, and debris was quickly removed from the scene.

But officials could recall no incident in which part of the plane broke off in midair.

Lt. Gen. George K. Muellner, the Air Force's leading acquisitions executive at the Pentagon, said he did not know what may have caused the crash -- or whether the rest of the fleet of F-117s could be at risk. So far, evidence indicates only that "some sort of structural issue led to loss of control."

The Air Combat Command was still going over data, Muellner said, to "determine what if any impact this has on the fleet." He said investigators hoped to have some answers in 24 to 48 hours.

According to Air Force records, the plane has a safety record comparable to that of the older F-15, with 2.72 mishaps per 100,000 flying hours. The F-15 rate is 2.61.

The boomerang-shaped F-117A Nighthawk uses a unique design and special coating over its surface to avoid enemy radar.

'Difficult plane to handle'

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