Stealth jet inspectors overlooked wing defect Investigation of crash at air show is finished

December 09, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two inspections by Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp. personnel failed to uncover a maintenance error that caused an F-117A stealth fighter to lose its wing and plummet into a Baltimore County neighborhood in September, Air Force sources said yesterday.

Investigators have the names of Air Force maintenance personnel who worked on the Lockheed Martin-manufactured jet fighter, but cannot pinpoint which of them is responsible for incorrectly installing a wing support that led to the crash.

A five-member Air Force accident investigation board, which is expected to release its findings at a Baltimore news conference as early as this week, learned that four missing fasteners on the support caused the left wing to shudder and then fall off.

Maj. Joseph LaMarca, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va., would not discuss the specifics of the report. "It is complete and we're waiting for Gen. [Richard E.] Hawley to approve the report," he said, referring to the commanding officer.

When the report is released, the board's president, Col. Mark Beard, and another board member will appear at the Maryland Air National Guard base at Martin State Airport to answer questions about the crash.

No one was injured when the arrowhead-shaped Nighthawk fighter broke apart during a show at the airport Sept. 14 and crashed into the waterfront community of Bowleys Quarters. As thousands of spectators watched in horror, the plane cartwheeled through the sky and exploded in a fireball on Chester Road, damaging two houses. The pilot parachuted to safety.

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 off-limits.

The accident board, which includes a maintenance worker and an F-117 pilot, was convened in September to determine specifics of the crash and whether anyone should be held responsible.

"They've been able to backtrack when it happened and where it happened," said an Air Force source, who said several Air Force personnel worked on the jet about 20 months ago at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, N.M.

"They have names of the people who worked on the airplane," said the source, adding, "You can't specifically say who was involved" in failing to fasten the support in the left wing. That structure, known as a "Brooklyn Bridge," is used to stabilize the wing and should have 39 fasteners. But four were missing, the source said.

"Subsequent inspections failed to identify it as well," said the source. Two inspections on the plane were conducted at Holloman by Air Force personnel and Lockheed Martin technicians in July 1996 and July 1997, the investigators found.

Because the support is covered by a plate, inspectors could not readily determine if it was correctly installed. "It's not something you could easily look for," said the source. "There was no technical order that established the need to do that."

The source was uncertain if a revised technical order -- essentially a checklist of items to be inspected -- has since been issued that would direct inspectors to determine that all fasteners are installed correctly.

Ron Lindeke, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, referred all questions about the crash investigation to the Air Force.

After the crash, all F-117s were grounded. When a report by an Air Force safety board -- the first panel to look into the mishap -- was completed in October, the wing supports in the remaining 53 F-117s were inspected and found to have no similar problems.

The $43 million plane is similar to those that flew the first missions in the Persian Gulf war against the most heavily defended Iraqi targets. All the planes, developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were modified with the wing support seven or eight years ago.

Once the accident report is released, it will be sent to Lt. Gen. Lansford E. Trapp Jr., commanding general of the 12th Air Force, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., which has authority over Holloman. Trapp would determine if disciplinary action will be brought.

The crash also has prompted organizers of the air show to ban jet aircraft from future shows to ease concerns of neighbors of Martin airport.

"In consideration of the people of Bowleys Quarters, we will not include jet acts in future shows," Rick Cammack, president of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, said Sunday.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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