January 30, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Navy has grounded a Navy squadron that suffered four crashes over the past 16 months, included Monday's crash of an F-14 into a residential neighborhood that killed five people.
The jet's two crew members and three people inside a house were killed in the accident, which occurred shortly after the plane took off from Nashville International Airport in Tennessee.
The Navy said it has grounded the 13 jets in the San Diego based-VF-213 squadron for at least one day to review safety procedures. A Navy spokesperson said ordering a stand-down after a major accident is a common practice for the military.
The Pentagon said Tuesday the Navy is launching a broad investigation into its flying and training procedures in the wake of the crash.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said Defense Secretary William Perry and Deputy Defense Secretary John White met with the chief and vice chief of naval operations Tuesday to discuss how the investigation is going. He said Perry was satisfied the probe is being handled "very well."
Bacon said there has been no decision to ground all F-14's for a safety review, but didn't rule out the possibility if the investigation reveals a safety problem. "I'm not ruling anything in or out here," he said. "We are taking this very, very seriously. We are going to leave no stone unturned."
The investigation will look at every aspect of what may have caused the crash, Bacon said, adding that the safety record of the Navy's F-14 has been better than average over the past 15 years.
Vice Adm. Brent Bennitt, the Navy's commander for Pacific Fleet aviation units, noted the F-14 has had an "unusual number of mishaps." The Navy has 338 F-14s.
Since 1991 there have been 30 F-14 crashes, the last four from the same squadron, VF-213, also known as the "Flying Blacklions". One of the squadron's accidents was the October 1994 crash that killed Lt. Kara Hultgreen, one of the first women to qualify for a Navy combat aviation assignment.
But Bennitt said the Navy's primary air-to-air combat plane has a lower accident rate when compared to other older Navy aircraft. The F-14, built by Grumman, was introduced in the Navy in the 1970s and is no longer being manufactured.
Critics of the F-14 say it's underpowered, and all of the last four accidents happened following engine stalls or problems. The Navy is replacing the older engine in F-14s with newer engines that are 30 percent more powerful, but says the move is to improve performance and is not motivated by safety reasons.
On Wednesday, investigators at the site were combing through the wreckage and interviewing witnesses for clues as to what caused the Navy jet to come down.
"The plane is in parts all over the place," one investigator said. "You can't even make out a whole plane."
The jet went down 2.5 miles south of Nashville International. The Navy said the plane was not carrying any missiles, rockets, or bombs.
Elmer Newsom, 66, his wife, Ada, 63, and a friend, Ewing T. Wair, 53, were killed when the plane hit their house in the Luna Heights subdivision. Its fuel turned the house into a huge fireball, and flames engulfed vacant homes on both sides. Also killed were Lt. Cmdr. John Stacy Bates, 33, who was flying the jet, and radar interceptor officer Lt. Graham Alden Higgins, 28.
Bates' squadron has had four F-14 accidents in the past 16 months, including one last April in which he was the pilot.
Bates apparently lost control of his F-14. He and the radar intercept officer managed to eject from the aircraft before it went down into the Pacific Ocean. The aircraft was never recovered.
A review of the accident investigation shows Naval investigators concluded the loss of the airplane was due to "pilot error" because Bates failed to take the required action to prevent his plane from going into an uncontrollable spin after an engine stall.
According to the internal document, the actions of Bates and his navigator were "indicative of a need for further training ... on ... recovery techniques."
After a review, Bates was found fully qualified for return to flight status, said Cmdr. Gregg Hartung, a Navy spokesman.
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