Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wing Cracks Ground Many A-10s

Nearly three dozen of the warplanes flown from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base have been grounded indefinitely after the Air Force found wing cracks in part of the service's aging fleet. The problem, had it not been detected, had the potential to cause wings to fall off, a military aviation expert said. The Air Force ordered the immediate grounding of 130 of the 400 or so A-10 Thunderbolt II jets in use around the world. Eighty-two of the A-10s are assigned to Davis-Monthan. Of those, 34 were grounded for inspection and repair in response to the Air Force order. Tucson is home to the world's largest fleet of the aircraft, since Davis-Monthan is the nation's premier training site for A-10 pilots. The A-10 has been a workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan, a mainstay in providing close air support to U.S. ground troops. Introduced in 1975, the jets have surpassed their normal lifespan and have been refurbished to keep them in service. Production ceased in the mid-1980s. The grounded A-10s all have thin-skin wings installed during original manufacture, the Air Force said. Davis-Monthan's wing commander, Col. Paul Johnson, said the A-10 has a stellar safety record. Still, he said, the discovery of wing cracks is a "serious issue" that must be addressed to protect pilots and the public. Johnson said the Air Force is fortunate to have keen-eyed maintenance personnel who noticed the problem before it caused any mishaps. Maintainers detected the wing cracks on A-10s undergoing upgrading and inspection at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Davis-Monthan averages 60 to 70 training flights per day on the A-10. That number will drop substantially until the grounded aircraft are restored to service, Johnson said. He said it's too early to tell how long inspections and repairs will take.Davis-Monthan will try to minimize the impact on trainees by using flight simulators, but "ultimately we may be forced to delay the graduation of some of our pilots," the colonel said. Military aviation expert Peter B. Field, a retired Marine Corps pilot who has worked for major aircraft manufacturers, said "the Air Force is acting prudently" by grounding the jets. "The A-10 is a very fine aircraft," he said. "It's just showing its age." A jet's wings flex with every flight, he said. Over time, the wings of older craft like the A-10, built before sturdier metal composites came into use, will begin to weaken along the flex lines. "It's like straightening out a paper clip and sitting there and bending it until it breaks," said Field, who now runs his own Missouri-based aviation firm, Aviation Consulting Services. Had the A-10 cracks not been detected, Field said, there was a risk that "at some point in time, some poor kid would be up there and yank back and pull the wings off." An underlying problem, he said, is that the Air Force as a whole, "is limping along flying older airplanes instead of going out and buying new ones." That's largely because new ones are astronomically expensive, he said. The Air Force, in its statement Friday announcing the groundings, said the A-10 wing cracks are "representative of a systemic problem for our aging Air Force fleet." The service said the A-10 inspections will not affect current or future combat missions. Priority is being given to aircraft currently in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

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