F-15 fighter jet crashes off O’ahu


Posted on: Saturday, February 2, 2008

Crash raises scrutiny of F-15 fighter jet

By William Cole and Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writers

The ditching of a Hawai’i Air National Guard F-15D fighter yesterday was at least the fifth crash nationwide for the Eagles since May and will result in even greater scrutiny for an aging aircraft that has been grounded several times in recent months.

The fighter crashed yesterday in the ocean 60 miles south of O’ahu at about 1:37 p.m. after the pilot lost altitude and control, officials said.

“The pilot ejected. He’s safe,” said Capt. Jeff Hickman, a Hawai’i National Guard spokesman.

Hickman said there were two of the twin-tail fighters doing routine “air-to-air” training.

Two Coast Guard cutters were on the scene of the crash, and the pilot was picked up by helicopter and taken to The Queen’s Medical Center, where he was in good condition yesterday evening.

The National Guard did not release the pilot’s name or age, but said he was an experienced pilot.

The pilot’s family was with him at Queen’s and officials said he was in good spirits.

The outcome was far different than the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C in early November in which the aircraft broke apart and led to a worldwide grounding of the F-15 fleet. The Missouri pilot’s arm was shattered and his shoulder was dislocated.

The Hawai’i Air Guard pilot did not suffer any broken bones.

“He’s a tough guy,” Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the head of the Hawai’i National Guard, said of the pilot. “He was up, walking around, smiling, had his family there – so we’re all happy that he’s in good shape.”

Lee said the pilot, who was flying solo in the twin-seat aircraft, “was getting to the point where he said, ‘Hey, I’m getting kind of low, if I can’t control it, I better punch out.’ ”

Lee said he couldn’t release altitude information, but the pilot was “at the low end” of the minimum for ejecting. His ejection seat parachute deployed properly.

Three rescue aircraft crews from Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point and crewmembers aboard the Coast Guard cutter Ahi, an 87-foot patrol boat, immediately responded to the incident. The Coast Guard was alerted at 1:45 p.m., a release said.

“He seemed OK for having just crashed,” said Coast Guard rescue swimmer Dave Burns, who hoisted the pilot out of the seas with swells up to 12 feet. “It just seemed like he was ready to get out of there. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disoriented.”

Burns said the pilot was in a life raft when the Coast Guard arrived. The rescue swimmer jumped into the waves, swam over to the jet pilot and made sure he was OK.

The pilot thanked the crew several times after the rescue, Burns said. Once the helicopter landed, the pilot was able to walk, he said. Coast Guard Lt. Will Johnson, the pilot of the Coast Guard helicopter, said there
was an oil sheen in the water and a smell of oil in the area around where the fighter pilot was rescued.

But Johnson said he saw no wreckage from the downed F-15.

The rescue was Burns’ first time saving someone in the water. “We train for this type of stuff,” Burns said. “I’m just glad the guy was OK. It was a good day for both of us.”

Lee, the state’s adjutant general, had thanks for the Coast Guard, “because as soon as our (operations center) called, their help was there in short time to pick him up.”

Hickman said the second F-15 maintained visual contact with the downed pilot.

Crewmembers from the cutter Ahi, the cutter Kukui, a 225-foot buoy tender, and Coast Guard aircraft crews were remaining on scene to check for pollution and debris.

A crash investigation will take at least 30 days, officials said.

The F-15 is part of the 199th Fighter Squadron, 154th Wing of the Hawai’i Air National Guard.

Before yesterday, the squadron was approaching a record 80,000 hours of accident-free flying in the F-15, Hickman said earlier. Around the late 1960s, a Hawai’i Guard F-4 Phantom pilot did have to eject because of a fuel problem, he said.

The F-15s serve in a homeland defense role for the state. The aircraft also are available for worldwide taskings.

The 63-foot-long F-15s, which can fly faster than 1,875 mph, or Mach 2.5 plus, were deployed to Iraq in 2000 for no-fly-zone duty and patrolled the skies above Honolulu after the 9/11 attacks.

Thirteen of 20 Hawai’i Air National Guard F-15s stationed at Hickam Air Force Base returned to the air in mid-January after the fighters were grounded worldwide on Nov. 3. The day before, an Air National Guard F-15C in Missouri experienced catastrophic structural failure and broke apart in flight during basic maneuver training.

The entire U.S. Air Force F-15 fleet was grounded after the Nov. 2 Missouri crash. The A through D model jets were cleared to fly, but then were regrounded on Nov. 28, and again in early December after another problem aircraft was found.

The newest model, the F-15E, continued to fly and is being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In June, an F-15 from the Oregon Air National Guard crashed in the Pacific Ocean on a training mission. Also in June, one of the jets crashed near Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. And in May, an F-15 went down in southwestern Indiana during training.

The Hawai’i Guard’s seven other F-15 Eagles remain grounded and await clearance to fly from Air Combat Command on the Mainland.

Hawai’i has A, B, C and D models that are on average 25 years old, officials said. The plane that crashed was a newer D model F-15 valued at $28 million.

The Hawai’i Air National Guard first received F-15s in 1987, replacing F-4 Phantoms.

The Hawai’i aircraft flying yesterday has two seats, although officials said there was only the one pilot in the crashed aircraft.

Guard officials said they did not believe the F-15 crash was related to ongoing training at Kane’ohe Bay.

The Navy said last month that F-15 Eagles were to be used in an adversary role as eight U.S. Navy F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet jets from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine were conducting flight operations at Kane’ohe Bay through Feb. 20.

The Navy was to work with the Hawai’i Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron to test the Navy’s newest fighter aircraft technologies. The Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron also was expected to conduct operations in and out of the air facility throughout the testing period, said Navy Lt. Mark Huber, a public affairs officer.

The F-15s at Hickam will be replaced by F-22 A Raptors with stealth technology starting in late 2011.

A Coast Guard rescue crew hoisted a downed F-15 Hawai’i Air National Guard pilot from waters about 60 miles south of O’ahu yesterday afternoon. The unidentified pilot was not hurt.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com and Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.
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