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From: leigh aulper3/13/2009 2:18:09 PM
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AIR FORCE LOOKING TO REPLACE WINGS ON ALL A-10 WARTHOG ATTACK JETS

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Date: March 13, 2009

The Air Force is looking to replace the wings on all of its 356 A-10 Warthogs despite current plans that call for modernizing only two-thirds of the fleet, according to a senior service official.

This comes as the service has been working to repair cracks on many of the attack jets’ wings. The issue forced the Air Force to ground more than 100 jets -- many of which are still unable to fly -- since the cracks were discovered last year.

The Air Force has budgeted more than $1 billion to buy 242 new wings for the oldest A-10s. Jets with thin-skin wings only would receive the upgrade. However, the service would like to garner additional funding to replace the wings on the remaining Warthogs, which have also been subject to cracking.

“For the total fleet of aircraft, there are still a few that are unfunded, but that can be worked as we go through funding cycles in the next couple of years to get the full fleet funded,” Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Donald Hoffman said during a Feb. 27 meeting with a handful of reporters at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference in Orlando, FL.

The Air Force selected Boeing to replace the wings on all of its thin-skinned A-10s in June 2007. The contract runs into the next decade.

For now, the Air Force is rapidly working to repair the cracks in many of its Warthogs, which have been relied upon heavily for close air support of ground troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think we can fix the crack that exists right now with confidence and let the normal cost of the wing replacement take place,” Hoffman said. “We’ll continue to monitor the fix that we put in.”

As the Air Force’s fleet of legacy fighters continues to grow, many aircraft have experienced structural issues that have subsequently led to grounding and flight restrictions.

The service grounded all of its F-15s in 2007 after a jet broke in half during a training mission. An investigation into the crash revealed major issues with the fighter’s longeron support beams. Some jets still remain grounded due to the issue.

In January 2008, Hoffman -- who at the time was serving as the service’s No. 2 acquisition official -- said Air Force lawyers were considering potential legal action against the Eagle’s original equipment manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, which is now part of Boeing. But that course of actions has been abandoned, the four-star said last month.

“We do not see any financial relief through those processes,” he said last month when asked if the repair costs would be covered by Boeing.

“It’s like [if] you take your 10-year-old car back to the dealer,” Hoffman said. “Maybe it no kidding was a manufacturing defect, it wasn’t built to spec. But after you operate your car for 10 years, you don’t have much of an argument there.”

The Air Force’s other fourth-generation fighter -- the F-16 -- has experienced bulkhead cracks. In addition, the service’s HH-60 combat search-and-rescue helicopters have among the lowest mission-capable rates of any aircraft in the service’s inventory, Hoffman said.

“As a fleet, they had the lowest,” he said of the helicopters’ reliability rates.

At the same time, the Air Force has ordered inspections of its entire C-130 Hercules cargo hauler fleet after discovering a potential issue with wing bolts, according to service officials.

Each aircraft must undergo a two- to four-hour inspection before returning to flight, an Air Force Special Operations Command official told Inside the Air Force last week. The command operates specially configured Hercs that are used to insert troops into combat zones and refuel helicopters.

The mandatory inspections include newer Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft in addition to the legacy C-130s, which make up the bulk of the Air Force’s inventory. The oldest Air Force Hercules aircraft entered service in the early 1960s. The newer J-models entered the fleet in the late 1990s.

C-130s are the backbone of intratheater airlift and are used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to transport troops and cargo.

“Despite the size of the fleet, inspections are proceeding rapidly, and while this is a significant effort for our maintainers we currently don’t expect any major disruptions to essential airlift operations,” Vicki Stein, an Air Force spokeswoman, wrote in a March 6 e-mail. -- Marcus Weisgerber
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