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Pilot Deaths Put F-15 Deal in Doubt
Korea stunned by deaths of 3 pilots in less than a month
Terence Mitchell (terence)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-06-10 14:33 (KST)   
The recent deaths of more top-ranking Korean air force pilots, long considered one of the safest jobs in the military in terms of accidents, has stunned the nation.

Just four weeks ago, ace pilot Kim Do-hyun was killed in a Children's Day flight exhibition.

According to investigators at the scene of the accident, the pilot lost control of the plane for less than a second. While swerving the plane away from spectators on the ground below, he then lost the crucial seconds he needed to eject safely before the crash.

Another military aircraft -- a next generation F-15 -- crashed on Wednesday into the Yellow Sea just off Pohang during a nighttime military exercise. Although their bodies have yet to be recovered, it was announced that the two pilots were killed in the crash.

According to investigators analyzing the wreckage, human error is to blame: the pilots were momentarily confused due to the effects of vertigo.

Since this was the same conclusion given to explain the deaths of four other pilots killed in similar training exercises last year, many inside the air force are now beginning to dispute these findings -- especially those who participated in the same flight exercises.

Two pilots from Wednesday's mission said the last radio call from the pilots of the F-15 was routine. They had said it was time to "knock it off," which not only signaled the end of that particular mission, but also clearly indicated that the pilots were calm. At the time of the call, there was no evidence that they were suffering from vertigo.

This was confirmed by one of the investigators, who preferred to remain anonymous, in a comment to the media:

"The flight records show there was no urgency in the pilot's voice. And it is still unclear what the cause of the accident was."

Several Korean military experts have issued reports to the Korean media saying it is almost impossible that both Col. Kim Sung-dae and Maj. Lee Jae-wook succumbed to vertigo. They were highly qualified pilots and had over 1,000 hours flying time.

In fact, Maj. Lee had trained for over a year on the F-15s in the United States. He was until the accident the chief pilot trainer for the F-15 team.

Moreover, the F-15K itself is equipped with a very sophisticated system for alerting pilots to errors. Each aircraft also has counter-vertigo mechanisms, which make it virtually impossible to become a victim of hallucination while flying.

Many experts are suggesting an alternative answer to the crashes: the likelihood of defects in the aircraft's engine.

They point to the fact that more recent F-15s are being equipped with two different engines, one made by General Electronics and one by Pratt and Whitney. This variation in engines has led to technical defects before, most notably last January, when a Japanese F-15 crashed due to engine trouble.

Last summer, training on F-15s was halted after several defects in the wings were discovered. Then again last August, when the control software in some of the planes was found to be defective. However, after only two weeks of investigation pilots were reportedly ordered to continue flying the same planes.

In many aspects, this is not surprising since the F-15 is the most expensive investment in weaponry the Korean military has ever made. The 40 planes from Boeing cost over $5.1 billion.

So far, only four F-15s have been delivered to Korea. Thirty-six others are scheduled to arrive before the end of the year. However, sources close to the Korean air force say the recent deaths may lead to a reconsideration of the deal to purchase all 40 aircraft.

"Depending on the results of the accident investigation, we might implement proper measures on it [the deal]," General Kwon Oh-sung told reporters during a briefing yesterday.

At present, it is unlikely that more planes will be accepted this year.

In 2002, when Boeing and the air force were negotiating a deal, the F-15 was touted as the world's most advanced all-weather fighting machine, mainly because it could carry at least five different types of weaponry, with a maximum payload of 23,000 tons.

At the time of the final bidding, Boeing supposedly cut the price by over $200 million dollars to beat out their European rivals. Some have wondered whether this affected the budget for safety testing, which is usually done before sending any new designs abroad.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Terence Mitchell

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