Repair mistake blamed in crash Wing part installed improperly on stealth fighter, Air Force says

Martin air show accident

Panel to determine whether workers should be held liable

October 03, 1997|By Tom Bowman and Dennis O'Brien | Tom Bowman and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An Air Force safety board has determined that an F-117A fighter crashed in Baltimore County last month because workers incorrectly installed a part in the left wing, causing the plane to cartwheel from the sky in front of thousands of spectators, officials and sources said last night.

The board made its determination as it nears completion of a report on the Sept. 14 crash, Pentagon sources said.

"They're pretty much there," one source said. "A support structure appears to have been put in incorrectly."

Another Air Force crash investigation board began working this week and will determine whether maintenance workers should be held liable, the sources said.

As a result of the safety board's finding, the wing support structures in the remaining 53 F-117s are being inspected. Already, two of the inspected jets were back flying yesterday afternoon, officially ending the grounding of the Air Force planes.

"We lifted the standdown today," said Col. Ron Rand, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command, based at Langley Air Force Base, Va., which operates the jets. Rand said last night that the decision was made by Gen. Dick Hawley, the unit's commander, who reviewed the safety board's work.

The crash of the arrowhead-shaped F-117A Nighthawk occurred the waterfront community of Bowleys Quarters in eastern Baltimore County. A piece of its left wing snapped off during an air show at Martin State Airport.

The $43 million plane crashed less than a half-mile from the airport, where 12,000 people had gathered on a clear Sunday afternoon to watch the show, sponsored each year by the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce.

The pilot, Maj. Bryan Knight, ejected and safely parachuted from the plane just before it slammed onto a driveway near the home of Mark and Elizabeth Green.

The Greens' cottage, which burned when the jet crashed into their driveway, had to be boarded up with plywood and plastic. Helen Dimick's house next door also was partially burned and damaged by smoke.

Knight, a decorated pilot with about 2,700 hours of flying time and 500 hours of experience in the cockpit of F-117A fighters, suffered minor neck and back injuries. There were no serious injuries to anyone on the ground.

Four days after the crash, Knight returned to the neighborhood and, in a gesture of thanks, gave his flight suit name tag to Diann Stumpf, a neighbor who had come to his aid.

The plane, similar to those that flew the first missions in the Persian Gulf war against the most heavily defended Iraqi targets, had completed three passes over the airport when trouble became apparent. Air Force officials said the fighter went down during a flight from an air show in Syracuse, N.Y., to an Air Force base in Virginia, on an otherwise "picture-perfect sortie."

VTC Col. Mark E. Dougherty, a former stealth pilot who is heading the Air Force safety board, said the plane was rising at an angle of about 15 degrees, on the lookout for civilian aircraft in the area, when trouble struck.

Maj. Joseph LaMarca Jr., an Air Force spokesman, said last night that the pilot would be available to reporters this morning at the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Station because he has just completed a series of interviews with the five-member Accident Investigation Board.

Some residents in the community of waterfront bungalows, split-level homes and ranchers were forced out of their homes for several days when the Pentagon declared the site a "National Defense Area."

About 150 fire, police and military officials scoured the site in the hours after the crash, which sent several firefighters to area hospitals for treatment of nausea and inhalation of smoke from the fumes of the fighter.

So far, 33 of the F-117s have been inspected, and none has been found to have a problem, Rand said. Most of the planes are at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, N.M., with the others at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nev., and Palmdale, Calif., home of Lockheed, the plane's manufacturer.

All the planes, developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were modified with the wing structure seven or eight years ago. Air Force officials said the plane that crashed in Baltimore was worked on by an Air Force maintenance team at a test-range airfield at Tonapah, Nev.

"There is a possibility we would hold someone accountable," said an Air Force source. "It will not happen until both boards are completed."

The plane that crashed was one of two F-117s temporarily located at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., to support community and military air shows in the eastern United States.

Also yesterday, a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter jet on a routine training flight crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast.

The Navy said one crew member was rescued, and a search was under way for another. Both crew members ejected from the plane.

It was the seventh military plane crash since Sept. 13. The six earlier crashes occurred within a week and led to a one-day break in training flights for a safety review by all the military services.

The Navy jet went down about 4 p.m. about 65 miles east of Elizabeth City, N.C., said Coast Guard Petty Officer Harry Craft. He said a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the plane's radar intercept officer.

"We have recovered the back-seater, and he supposedly was in good shape, and we're still on scene now looking for the pilot," Craft said.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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