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Marines order stand-down of F/A-18s following crashes

An F/A-18D Hornet from Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 conducts air operations and maritime surface warfare training with the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey.

WILLIAM JENKINS/U.S. NAVY

By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Marines have ordered a stand-down of all nondeployed jets following a string of crashes that calls into question whether their pilots are at greater risk because of less training and available aircraft.

The stand-down will provide “an operational pause for all [Marine Air Wings] not including deployed units,” said Capt. Sarah Burns, a spokesman for the Marines.

The pause will last one day and will be taken in the next seven days, Burns said. It will allow units to “discuss best practices and to look at ways to continue to improve,” she said.

The stand-down was ordered after another Marine F/A-18C jet crashed Tuesday near Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. The Navy pilot ejected prior to the crash and was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was released with only minor injuries, the Navy reported. The name of the pilot, who was assigned to the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, has not been released.

The crash was the second in a week involving an F/A-18C aircraft belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232, which is based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.

On July 28, Marine Corps pilot Maj. Richard Norton was killed when the F/A-18C fighter jet that he was flying crashed near Twentynine Palms in California during night-time training.

In June, a fatal crash of a Hornet during a Blue Angels practice flight killed Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss and two upgraded Super Hornet variants of the F/A-18 collided in May during a training mission off the coast of North Carolina.

In all, five F/A-18s have been lost and two pilots killed in four crashes since May. The string of crashes has called into question whether the service is taking too much risk in worn aircraft and nondeployed pilots who are only flight training about 10 hours each month. Pilots are supposed to train in aircraft at least 16 hours monthly.

The crashes and 15 years of war have taken a toll on the Marines’ aircraft.

The service has 85 F/A-18s available now for training, but it requires 171, Burns said. The Marines are struggling with all their aircraft, including the MV-22 Osprey and the CH-53E Super Stallion. They have 438 combat-ready aircraft in the service, Burns said, but require 1,065 to conduct all their operations around the globe.

The lack of available aircraft has meant that nondeployed pilots have less access to flight training. Deployed or deploying pilots receive priority in using aircraft ready to fly.

Aviation experts have said the lack of flight time that allows a nondeployed pilot to stay proficient on basic handling and maneuvering of the jets makes combat training, such as exercises conducted at Fallon, very risky.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harmer, now an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War who watches the issues of Navy and Marine aviation readiness closely, said the limited hours of training and lack of available aircraft are becoming a significant security challenge.

“During the entire history of the F/A-18 program, there’s never been a time that mission capable rates are lower than they are now,” he said, referring to statistics that show how many squadrons are available for missions.

tara.copp@stripes.com
Twitter: @TaraCopp

 

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