Air National Guard planes grounded by cracks

The future of the two F-16 jets stuck at the airport is up in the air,although the planes might not be until the next war.

Both Oregon Air National Guard jets have cracks ­ some more thanan inch long ­ in the fuel cells near their tails. While those stressfractures won't blow up the planes, they will keep them grounded until they'refixed.

And, because fixing an airplane isn't cheap, the F-16s may be destinedfor the airplane Boneyard in Arizona, where they won't be fixedunless America enters a big enough war that it needs old airplanes, saidNational Guard Sgt. Kimberly Snow.

They're probably coming out of the inventory, said Lt. Col.Bill Eaton, vice commander of the 173rd fighter squadron at Kingsley Fieldin Klamath Falls, home of the cracked jets.

The National Guard grounded one of the planes before its scheduled performanceat the Medford air show. A pilot flew the other F-16 in a variety of low-levelpasses and maneuvers Saturday for the crowd. One plane leaked fuel as itwas being refueled. The pilot of the other jet heard pressure escaping fromthe crack as he landed.

The National Guard would send a repair team to Kingsley Field from Ogden,Utah, if it decided to repair the planes, Snow said. She didn't know howmuch those repairs would cost.

General Dynamics built the jets in 1981, and they were given a lifespanof about 15 years. The planes are also expected to operate for at least4,000 hours, Gleason said. Both planes had logged less time than that, hesaid.

These don't seem to be making it to (4,000 hours), he said.We're always a little bit surprised when something like this develops.

Both planes were inspected for stress cracks a few years ago, Snow said.Both were almost due for a major inspection, although that wouldn't includea check for stress cracks, she said.

Stress cracks aren't that rare, Eaton said. The planes are designed tosurvive the rigors of flight, but become more susceptible to cracks as theyget older, he said.

The F-16, nicknamed the Viper, is renowned for its durability, Eatonsaid. The plane proved that during the Gulf War, when F-16s were rarelygrounded for repairs.

Their maintenance record is really sterling, he said.

But three other F-16s from the Kingsley Field base developed cracks afew years ago. The National Guard sent two to the Boneyard and put one ondisplay.

The latest cracked planes have spent the past few days in a hangar atthe Medford airport.

Air National Guard officials and mechanics stripped both planes of theirengines Monday. They won't move the planes until the National Guard Bureauin Washington, D.C., decides what to do with them.

That could be by the end of the week, said Senior Master Sgt. Peter Gleason.

The airport wouldn't mind if the planes stay, said Kim Stearns, marketingrepresentative for Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport. Airport officialswill approach the National Guard for at least one of the jets if they'redestined for the Boneyard, she said.

The airport would put the planes on display, possibly in front of theairport, she said.

We'd find room, Stearns said. We're just waiting tosee if they're going to be available.

That's not impossible, although it's far too early to consider that,Gleason said.

The Kingsley Field National Guard base is a pilot training center, with18 F-16s. Eaton said he didn't know whether the National Guard would replacethe two grounded jets if they come out of service.

If we lose two of those, that's going to affect our flying operations,he said, although he added that the base will probably upgrade to newerF-16s or to different fighters by the end of next year.