11/06/07 — Strike Eagles grounded after Missouri Air National Guard crash

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Strike Eagles grounded after Missouri Air National Guard crash

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 6, 2007 1:46 PM

There will be no more silver birds coming in for landing near Wilber's barbecue, no more roars in the skies over Goldsboro and Wayne County.

At least for now.

In what Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Bentley is calling a "precautionary measure," all non-critical F-15 flight operations were suspended Saturday following the crash of a Missouri National Guard F-15C in a wooded area about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Preliminary findings indicate the incident might be linked to structural failure of the aircraft.

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base officials confirmed the order this morning -- 4th Fighter Wing flight crews are grounded until further notice.

Fourth Public Affairs Chief Maj. Amy Lengel said "the 4th's locally stationed F-15Es are included in the suspension," but could not comment on how long the wing's fleet would be missing from Wayne County skies.

Mrs. Bentley called the order "the safe thing to do" until an investigation into the Nov. 2 crash is complete.

The single-seat F-15C Eagle had been engaged in one-on-one training fights, in which speeds of 400 to 450 mph are typical, when the incident occurred, 131st Fighter Wing Col. Robert Leeker said Friday.

There was no contact between the plane and its partner in the mock fight.

The pilot, whose name has not yet been released, safely ejected from the aircraft and sustained only minor injuries.

The incident has implications for 4th assets outside the base gate, too.

More than a dozen Strike Eagles manned by members of the wing's 336th Fighter Squadron "Rocketeers" were deployed Sept. 14 in support of the global war on terror.

U.S. Central Command Air Forces and 9th Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Gary North said he met with them in early October and witnessed their professionalism and precision firsthand.

"Everyone in Goldsboro and at Seymour Johnson knows that the F-15E and all the other components of the (4th Fighter Wing) deploy to the Middle East," he said during his Oct. 19 visit to Seymour Johnson. "The Rocketeers are there right now, fighting in Afghanistan, doing great things. The airmen in the Area of Responsibility (AOR), particularly the ones in F-15Es, are doing incredible work."

But at least for now, that work has been suspended.

Mrs. Bentley said the aircraft will remain available for combat or "anything requiring a combat response," but would not specify whether or not 4th F-15Es would continue to carry out missions in theater.

North, a former F-15E command pilot, said despite the incident, the Air Force remains committed to providing unmatched air power across the globe.

"We will continue to maintain the 24/7 Air Tasking Order profile that allows me, as the CFACC, to synchronize and integrate air and space assets into the International Security Assistance Force and Combined Joint Task Force -- 82 operational scheme of maneuver," he said in a statement released this morning. "This is our continual task: to have air power overhead; persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; close precision strike capability; and air refueling, airlift, airdrop and aerial medical evacuation when needed."

The grounding of the F-15 fleet, he hopes, will send a "strong message" that he takes the safety of U.S. aircrews very seriously.

"I worry about the health of our aging fleet and how sometimes it is not well understood by those our airmen protect," North said. "The investigation will get to the cause of the accident. In the meantime, we will continue to provide air supremacy for the Afghan National Army and the collective NATO, Coalition and U.S. forces on the ground."

Local training flights, however, are a different story.

Officials expect to complete their inquiry into the crash within 60 days but no timetable has been given for lifting the "no fly" order.

When all its fighter squadrons are home, the 4th sees more than 80 sorties flown each day.

Maj. Lengel said during the suspension, flight crews will train in the classroom and on Strike Eagle simulators housed at the base.

"It is not yet known how long the suspension will be in effect. The Safety Investigation Board is convening now," she said. "Additionally, engineers from Boeing, the Safety Center and the Systems Program Office are on site to try to determine cause/long term effect."

The Air Force has more than 700 F-15s in its inventory, 96 of which are housed in fighter squadrons throughout Seymour Johnson.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.