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Bayou Militia F-15 pilots among hundreds grounded

BELLE CHASSE, La. (AP) — The F-15C Eagle fighter jets stationed near Belle Chasse appear free of the problems that caused one to break apart last month during a training exercise near St. Louis, Louisiana Air National Guard officials say.

The Naval Air Station has nearly completed inspections ordered by the Air Force after the Nov. 2 incident. ‘‘We’ve found zero in New Orleans,’’ said Col. Mike Lopinto, commander of Louisiana’s 159th Fighter Wing, which has 19 of the F-15s.

Idled F-15s sat on the nearby parking apron and in the Air Guard hangar, some with their cockpit canopies removed to allow inspection of the alloy for the sort of cracks blamed for the Missouri crash.

F-15s, the Air Force’s primary air-superiority weapon for more than 30 years, were grounded worldwide after the incident.

Lt. Col. Pete Stavros, who commands the 31 F-15 pilots in the 122nd Fighter Squadron, known as the ‘‘Bayou Militia,’’ called the down time frustrating.

‘‘The flying of the airplane is a quickly perishable skill,’’ Stavros said Thursday in his office at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse. ‘‘To be good at that, you have to do it regularly.’’

Grounded pilots could take as long as six months to regain the proficiency they attain from constant practice at aerial combat, Air Force officials said.

One of the 159th Fighter Wing’s two missions, which is to have armed F-15s, pilots and ground crews on alert 24 hours a day, prepared to launch to protect states along the Gulf of Mexico and key oil industry facilities from an aerial attack.

Officials do not know when the Bayou Militia F-15s, with their distinctive purple, gold and green bands above ‘‘JZ’’ tail markings (for ‘‘Jazz’’), will be cleared for take-off. The Air Force grounded the aging fighters ‘‘until further notice.’’

The F-15s assigned to Louisiana were among the 666 fighters worldwide that were grounded.

Although the Missouri investigation is not complete, engineers found that the cockpit broke off on a high-speed turn because that beams connecting the nose and cockpit had cracked. The pilot ejected safely.

The 224 newer F-15E Strike Fighters have been cleared and are flying. But 442 model A, B, C and D jets remain grounded worldwide for the painstaking checks, said Maj. Tom Crosson of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

Louisiana has a mix of A and C models and one B model, a two-seater.

By Thursday, Bayou Militia maintenance crews were about 75 percent done with the third round of inspections ordered for the A and C models, Lopinto said. ‘‘We have not found any significant problems with our airplanes,’’ Lopinto said.

Cracks were found in the fuselages of nine jets in Japan, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri and Oregon, Crosson said.

The A and B models entered service in 1972, while the C models began flying in 1979, according to the Air Force.

The Bayou Militia — the first Air Guard unit to get F-15s in 1985 — is moving to C-model jets, which the Air Force planned to keep in service through 2025.

In the meantime, the Air Force wants to replace the F-15s with F-22 Raptors, each costing about $135 million.

In addition to the alert mission, the 159th — sent to Iraq five times to enforce no-fly zones after the 1991 Persian Gulf War — trains regularly for overseas deployment.

The wing’s 1,400 members have jobs ranging from security forces to medical personnel.

It also has members on active duty helping the New Orleans Police Department patrol the city.

For the 159th, the alert mission was largely a function of the Cold War until the Louisiana Air Guard was given other duties in 1994. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, pilots from Belle Chasse guarded the skies as President Bush, in Air Force One, traveled through Louisiana airspace for a stop at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City.

With the exception of a brief period following Hurricane Katrina, the wing has done the alert mission nonstop. Since then, the wing has received two ‘‘outstanding’’ marks in no-notice inspections by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the military organization charged with protecting the United States and Canada from aerial threats.

At Belle Chasse, Air Guard F-16 squadrons from Alabama and Illinois have filled in for the Bayou Militia since the F-15s were grounded.

Meanwhile, F-15 pilots are trying to retain their aerial combat proficiency through high-tech flight simulators. Two of them are in Belle Chasse and can be linked to simulators at other bases, Stavros said.

‘‘It’s still not the same’’ as actual flying, though, he said.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.timespicayune.com