More than half of the US Air Force's F-16D fleet has been grounded after cracks were discovered in a routine inspection. (Chad Bellay / Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force has grounded over half of its F-16D Fighting Falcons, the service’s Air Combat Command (ACC) announced Tuesday.
The initial damage, described in a Pentagon release as “canopy sill longeron cracks found between the front and rear pilot seats,” was discovered after a routine post-flight inspection on one of the jets. The discovery of cracks led to a fleet-wide inspection order.
Of the 157 F-16Ds in the fleet, 82 were found to have cracks and have been ordered to stand down. The remaining 75 have been cleared to resume normal activities. The Air Force is working with Lockheed Martin engineers to discover the cause of the cracks and what repair options there are.
“As aircraft accumulate flight hours, cracks develop due to fatigue from sustained operations,” Lt. Col. Steve Grotjohn, deputy chief of the Weapon System Division, said in a service statement. “Fortunately, we have a robust maintenance, inspection and structural integrity program to discover and repair deficiencies as they occur.”
The other 812 F-16 jets, which include a number of different variants, are not impacted by the inspections.
The F-16 recently celebrated its 40th year of production, but Lockheed officials see the market for the jet as relatively stable, particularly as older models are upgraded.
Top Air Force generals, including ACC commander Mike Hostage, have said they must keep an eye on the wear and tear on the F-16s. That tradeoff is part of the reason the Air Force decided to fund an F-16 service-life extension program (SLEP) over the combat avionics programmed extension suite (CAPES) program in its FY 2015 budget request.
“Honestly, I wish I had enough money to both refurbish my legacy fleet and continue to keep the replenishment on track because what I would like to have is the 1,763 F-35 fleet and then whatever residual legacy fleet I still have would still be tactically capable and be aerodynamically capable,” Hostage said in January. “In other words, there is SLEP and CAPE.”
“If I could only do one, [SLEP] is the one I would do because I would still have something to fly; it is just going to be tactically nonviable sooner because I did not do the CAPE,” Hostage said. “If I do the CAPE only and do not do the SLEP, then it becomes unsafe to fly long before it becomes tactically nonviable.
“So, if I am going to do one or the other, I would do SLEP first. I can fly with lesser capability, but I have just become that much more dependent even sooner on a strong fifth [generation] fleet.”