Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A-10s may be moved in case of groundings

Wing cracks limit jets' availability

Air Force Times

By Bruce Rolfsen - Staff writer
Posted: Monday Oct 27, 2008 12:42:34 EDT

With more than one-third of Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts grounded because of wing cracks, the service is considering temporarily reassigning aircraft and even reassigning airmen.

The groundings began Oct. 3, when orders went out not to fly 127 jets that were built with "thin wings" until the wings had been checked and repaired, if needed. The number of grounded A-10s is likely to grow as more aircraft are inspected for cracks near the main landing gear.

Lt. Col. David Trucksa, a Warthog subject matter expert with Air Combat Command headquarters, said the full extent of the wing problems won't be known until end of October, when inspections are completed.

But Trucksa said he doesn't expect the problem to end soon.

"It will be a long time — a year," he said. "It's not short-term like the F-15 Eagle."

In November 2007, the service grounded all F-15s after an F-15C broke apart in flight while on a training mission over Missouri. Inspectors traced the problem to cracked beams inside fuselages that were thinner than what specifications called for, and it took three months to get all but a few of the fighters back in the air.

While F-15s sat on flight lines, the only experience pilots got was in simulators. As the jets returned to flight, it took squadrons another month to requalify all their pilots.

Trucksa said the situation for A-10 pilots is not as severe because A-10 pilots can still fly. Grounding the entire fleet is not anticipated.

According to the Ogden Air Logistics Center in Utah, which oversees the health of all 356 Thunderbolts, 65 jets were grounded as of Wednesday, awaiting inspections and 96 were grounded awaiting repairs. The initial grounding had the greatest impact on active-duty units in the U.S., where about 50 percent of the A-10s could not be flown, according to information from the units and Ogden.

Of the remaining Warthogs, 48 were inspected and returned to flight, and an additional 147 A-10s with a differently designed "thick wing" were deemed flyable but faced later inspections once all the "thin wing" A-10s are checked.

Depending on the severity of the cracks, the grounded aircraft will be repaired at their home base or delivered to a depot for more extensive work.

When the inspections are completed, the command will assess the impact on each A-10 unit and look at what steps should be taken, Trucksa said.

Those include temporarily reassigning aircraft so that flyable A-10s are more evenly spread across the service and temporarily sending A-10 pilots who need flying time to units less severely impacted, Trucksa said. Pilots preparing for combat deployments would get first dibs on those temporary reassignments.

The command is also keeping watch on how the grounding could impact combat operations in Afghanistan. Since 2002, A-10s have been a near continuous presence at Bagram Air Base. So far, there has not been a need to send replacement A-10s or change deployment schedules to make up for the jets grounded at Afghanistan, Trucksa said.

Air Forces Central filled the gap with F-15E Strike Eagles stationed at Bagram and carrier-based Navy jets already in the region flying Afghanistan missions.

One option not on the table is delaying flyable A-10s from going through the fleetwide cockpit and avionics upgrade, Trucksa said.

All A-10s are getting digital cockpits and new avionics. The upgrades enable the jets to release satellite-guided bombs, and cuts the time a pilot needs to find and attack a target.

Trucksa said the advantages of having all A-10s configured as "C models" outweighs delaying the conversion, expected to finish in 2010.

The A-10 grounding was prompted by inspections at Ogden, where A-10s go through depot-level repairs. The Ogden inspections involve removing panels and checking parts that aren't touched during base-level phase inspections.

When Ogden inspectors looked at the wheel trunnions in the "thin wing" jets, they found cracks that had not been anticipated. While A-10s were designed to last for 8,000 flying hours, many have passed the 10,000 hour mark.

The initial 244 A-10 jets were built with wings that used thinner sheet metal than the wings used in later editions of the jet.

The Air Force knew the thin wings wouldn't last for 16,000 hours and had signed a $2 billion contract with Boeing to build 247 new sets of wings to replace the thin wings. Boeing is in the engineering phase of designing the wings, and delivery of the first wings is expected in December 2010.


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