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Mon, Feb 11, 2008

USAF Considers Boeing's Responsibility For F-15 Woes

Should Company Be Held Liable For MD Issues?

If you took your 27-year-old car in to the dealership, claiming defective workmanship... how far do you think you'd get? That, in essence, is the question the US Air Force continues to mull over, as it works to determine what liability, if any, Boeing has following a spate of incidents involving older F-15 Eagles.

As ANN reported, an investigation into what led to the in-flight breakup of an F-15C in November 2007 uncovered structural beams in several older-model F-15s that weren't up to spec. Investigators also discovered one of the accident aircraft's four cockpit longerons -- which support the fuselage during high-g maneuvers -- was thinner that design specifications called for.

Subsequent inspections throughout the entire USAF F-15 fleet uncovered a wide range of issues with other longerons -- including those that were too thin, or had surface imperfections that could place too much stress on the structure. The flaws on some beams were relatively minor, though others had larger problems.

Nine other F-15s were found to have cracks in their longerons, similar to those found on the accident aircraft. The Air Force has since returned all but 161 F-15s to active duty, and it's unclear whether some of those jets will ever fly again.

Nearly all the F-15s in service with the USAF were built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., which was absorbed into Boeing in 1997. Air Force Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, the service's top uniformed acquisition officer, told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer the investigation into the problems continues... and at this point, it's unclear whether Boeing will be held culpable for the problems.

"At this point, there is no smoking gun that says, 'Aha,'" he said.

Complicating matters is the age of the suspect planes. The average age of the F-15 fleet is over 25 years old; the aircraft involved in the November 2 accident was 27-years old, and had 5,600 flight hours on its airframe. While that particular plane was rated for an 8,000-hour life expectancy, that's still a lot of hours of often high-g operations.

Hoffman employed the used-car analogy cited earlier. If you took your car back to the dealer "because it is worn out and you say this part wasn't made the way it was supposed to, you'll have a lame argument there," he said.

The Air Force is now taking a close look at the small print on the original contracts between McDonnell Douglas and the service... but that's tricky, given the time that's passed.

"There isn't a big file cabinet where you can go back and get all this information," Hoffman said. "We are doing due diligence to see whether there is any residual liability from the manufacturing process."

FMI: www.af.mil, www.boeing.com

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