Air Force grounds 279 aircraft after finding “quality defects”

News


Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

Jul. 28—The Air Force has grounded 279 planes, a significant portion of its training aircraft, the T-38 Talon and T-6A Texan II.

It blamed a problem with “quality defects” in the manufacture of explosive cartridges in the escape systems on both planes, which are used to train novice and instructor pilots at bases around the nation.

The order will keep hundreds of aviators out of the skies above Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and three other undergraduate pilot training bases and Naval Air Station Pensacola, where the Air Force trains combat systems operators.

In all, the Air Force grounded 203 supersonic T-38 jets, about 40 percent of that fleet, and 76 turboprop T-6A aircraft, about 15 percent of the Air Force inventory of those planes, said Aryn Lockhart, a spokeswoman with the 19th Air Force at Randolph.

“Those specific aircraft will remain grounded until maintenance can confirm that the escape systems are fully functional,” Lockhart said in a written statement Thursday. “We expect flying operations to resume with unaffected aircraft.”

The Air Force Materiel Command first identified the problem and informed commanders in San Antonio, where the 19th and the Air Education and Training Command are headquartered. The manufacturer worked with Material Command “to isolate the specific lot numbers of product that require inspection and further identify which aircraft may be affected,” Lockhart said.

The Navy and Marines also grounded some of their aircraft.

Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd. makes the ejection seats for the trainers, along with the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II and a host of other aircraft flown by dozens of military organizations.

Based in the United Kingdom, it bills itself as “the world’s leading manufacturer of ejection seats” and keeps a running total of pilots its products have saved — 7,677 through Thursday.

Lockhart said the Air Force ordered an inspection of all planes that use the suspect cartridges within 90 days. They did not include the F-35, also called the Joint Strike Fighter.

The Navy’s T-6 trainers were not affected, said Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, spokesman for the Naval Air Forces Command. He said the Naval Air Systems Command reported that some Navy T-45 Goshawks, a twin-engine training jet, were grounded, along with various types of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, the E/A-18G Growler and F-5 Tiger II, another trainer.

It was unclear whether any of the Goshawks at Naval Air Station Kingsville were among those being inspected. The Navy also flies Goshawks at NAS Meridian in Mississippi.

The T-6A has flown at JBSA-Randolph since May 2000 and is used as an entry-level trainer. The T-38 is a high-performance supersonic trainer that first flew when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

Multiple explosive cartridges are built into a “redundant” system to power their ejection seats, and the 19th Air Force directed its maintenance and logistics teams to check them “out of an abundance of caution,” Lockhart said.

“We do not know how long it’s going to take to get these fixes,” she said.

The affected pilots will train with ground-based simulators and fly in planes whose ejection seats don’t need to be checked, Lockhart said.

Once inspection procedures are worked out, teams will be alert for other issues and “aggressively take steps to ensure flight safety, including grounding aircraft where required,” she said.

In Thursday’s announcement, Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, the 19th Air Force commander, said no aircraft would be returned to a flying schedule “until we’re confident their escape systems are fully functional.”

“Our instructor pilots accomplish an incredibly important and demanding mission every day, and we owe them safe and reliable aircraft,” he said.

Occasionally, instructor pilots and students must rely on the ejection seats to bail out of training aircraft.

Two pilots safely escaped a T-6A shortly before it crashed near Rolling Oaks Mall in 2018, parachuting to safety near their wrecked plane in a field north of Loop 1604 off Nacogdoches Road and sparking concern about the pace of suburban development in Randolph’s flight path that has only increased in the years since.

Capt. Joshua Hammervold ejected and survived with injuries when a T-38 suffered hydraulic failure, causing it to crash near Lake Amistad outside Del Rio in 2017, but Capt. Paul J. Barbour, 32, forgot to arm his ejection seat and was trapped in the cockpit as the plane plunged to the ground.

The T-38’s ejection seat worked for two pilots flying near Bracketville in 2005 when a vulture hit the canopy and they thought the plane had stalled. It also saved two pilots after a midair collision with a private plane above Bexar County in 1990, and two others in 1981 who had to bail out near Randolph when they had landing gear problems.

Two pilots safely ejected from a T-6A near Stinson Municipal Airport south of San Antonio when one of them, a student on his first flight, accidentally cut the engine in 2000.

Around that time, an ejection seat was accidentally triggered while a T-6 was on the ground at a base in San Antonio. Representatives of the seat’s manufacturer later boasted at a convention that it worked from ground level exactly as it was intended.

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