Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cracks still idle some A-10s

Problem has delayed training at D-M; about a third of affected jets unrepaired

By Carol Ann Alaimo
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.23.2008

The largest fleet of warplanes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base remains partially grounded, nearly three months after wing cracks banned them from Tucson's skies.

In a process taking longer than expected, about a third of D-M's affected A-10 attack jets still aren't fit to fly, and some may not be airborne until the middle of next year.

Dozens of student pilots are behind schedule in their training as a result, and even seasoned aviators are feeling the pinch.

"We're still not flying at normal levels," said Staff Sgt. Jacob Richmond, a base spokesman.

"In some fashion or another, all of D-M's A-10 pilots have felt the effects over the last few months."

D-M is the main Air Force training base for A-10 pilots and has 82 of the warplanes, the world's largest fleet. Of those, 52 eventually were grounded with microscopic wing cracks first discovered in early October, and 35 have since been repaired.
The other 17 local jets still are out of commission, and officials can only "guesstimate" when they'll all be back in service.

"We hope to have all remaining aircraft repaired and returned to service by early to mid-2009," Richmond said.

The delay is due to the complexity of the fixes, he said. Engineers have been tailoring repair plans for each aircraft because there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

The problem has affected A-10s Air Force-wide, but because the jet is so central to D-M's daily operations, the impact of the groundings is keenly felt at the Tucson base.

About 20 student pilots who were supposed to graduate by year's end weren't able to because they couldn't get enough flight hours, Richmond said. Another class of 15 new student pilots was supposed to report to D-M in January but was told not to come until the situation is sorted out.

Student training has suffered because preference had to be given to veteran D-M fliers.

Depending on experience, each A-10 pilot must log between five and nine flights per month to maintain proficiency on the aircraft. That became a struggle when there weren't enough planes to go around.

The A-10, nicknamed the Warthog, has been a workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan, renowned for its effectiveness in providing close air support to U.S. ground troops. When the wing-crack problem was discovered, the Air Force gave priority to fixing A-10s deployed to war zones.

Introduced in 1975, the jets have surpassed their normal lifespan and have been refurbished to keep them in service for another decade or more.

The Air Force last year ordered more than 200 sets of new A-10 wings from the Boeing Co. of St. Louis. Delivery is scheduled to start in 2011.

The new wings will be installed on A-10s with thin-skin wings. All the recently grounded A-10s have thin-skin wings installed during original manufacture, the service has said.


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Associated pictures:

Click to enlarge

Senior Airman Bennie Gatlin removes a part on an A-10 in order to repair microscopic wing cracks. Many of the attack jets at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base have been repaired, but even so, other airplanes remain grounded, which has slowed pilot training. (Photo by Greg Bryan / Arizona Daily Star)

Click to enlarge

Senior Airman Bennie Gatlin, left, and Airman Adam Fisher work amid a collection of A-10 parts removed in the process of fixing wings with microscopic cracks. It could be mid-2009 before the Davis-Monthan fleet of A-10s is fully operational. (Photo by Greg Bryan / Arizona Daily Star)

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