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RAF LAKENHEATH, England — For the third time in six weeks, the 48th Fighter Wing has grounded its F-15Cs and F-15-Ds after a fresh discovery of a potentially catastrophic structural problem.

And this time, the planes could be sitting on the tarmac a little longer, according to the Air Force.

The latest grounding is the result of new information gleaned from the ongoing probe into the Nov. 2 crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C. That crash prompted the initial grounding of all F-15s in early November.

Following the crash, all 442 of the Air Force’s F-15s — models A through D — were to go through an inspection. As jets passed inspection, they were returned to flight, said Tech. Sgt. Cindy Dorfner, a spokeswoman with the Air Forces’ Air Combat Command in Virginia.

As of two nights ago, 87 jets had returned to the air.

But as the ongoing inspections revealed that more F-15s — in addition to the one that crashed Nov. 2 — showed cracks in the aircraft’s longerons, the command’s leader, Gen. John D.W. Corley issued another “stand down” for all aircraft. Longerons are pieces that run along the side of the aircraft near the canopy that hold much of the aircraft’s weight, she said.

As of Thursday, seven aircraft have been found to have cracks, according to Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Tom Crosson.

Two are based at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan; one is based at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and four at Kingsley Field in Oregon, an Air National Guard base.

As a precaution, Corley’s new order grounded the 87 aircraft that already passed the inspection, Dorfner said.

RAF Lakenheath is home to three F-15 squadrons, including the 493rd Fighter Squadron, which primarily flies the F-15C and D model. Both models are considerably older than the F-15E models flown by the 492nd and 494th Fighter Squadrons, according to RAF Lakenheath spokesman Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan.

The wing is the only unit in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe to fly the F-15 fighter jet. The C and D models are designed for air-to-air combat, while the E model is crafted for both air-to-air maneuvers as well as air-to-ground missions, according to base officials.

The order to ground the England-based jets was issued earlier this week by USAFE commander Gen. William Hobbins.

The move follows additional information about problems detected in the aircraft’s longerons.

Metallurgical analysis revealed additional cracks in the longerons, prompting this week’s grounding, according to a 48th Fighter Wing news release. Similar findings have been discovered in other F-15s, which computer simulators have indicated could lead to catastrophic structural failures.

The first grounding was ordered a day after the Missouri crash and impacted all of the Air Force’s more than 700 F-15s. It was lifted nearly two weeks later. The second grounding was ordered Nov. 28 and affected the A, B, C and D models following the discovery of issues with the longerons.

The current grounding order came roughly 24 hours after the second order was lifted and is for an indefinite time period.

“Technical experts with the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia, are developing a specific inspection technique for the suspect area based on yesterday’s findings,” the Air Force release stated. “However, unlike previous inspections, the inspected aircraft will not be immediately returned to flight.”

Lt. Col. Craig Wills, commander of the 493rd Fighter Squadron, which is impacted by the latest two groundings, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes last month that pilots and weapons systems officers stay focused by training on the base’s simulator as well as keeping up to date on academic responsibilities.

“We can fly our planned missions in the simulator and still receive valuable training,” he said. “They can throw much more dangerous situations at you in the simulator than if you were flying.”

Stars and Stripes’ Sandra Jontz and Patrick Dickson contributed to this report.


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