News

Wing cracks ground Prowlers

Nineteen EA-6B Prowlers were grounded Tuesday due to structural fatigue damage, specifically, cracks in their wings. Ten of those are based at Whidbey Naval Air Station, according to EA-6B program manager Capt. John Sheffler, at Naval Air Systems Command.

Three of the grounded Whidbey Prowlers showed outer wing panel cracks, while seven had cracks in their wing center panels.

The grounding of the Prowlers comes just as the House passed the 2004 Supplemental Defense Appropriations bill, which includes $35 million in funding for Prowler wing repairs. This follows $44 million in Prowler wing repair funding over the last two years.

According to a memo from Naval Air Systems Command, because of “world events and operational commitments,” operational risks exceeded what would normally be acceptable levels before wings were repaired. Unacceptable levels of fatigue damage have been found in wing center sections and outer wing panels.

The war-time workload has proven to be hard on the aging aircraft, and they are suffering wing cracks at a rate much faster than they would in peacetime, but Sheffler said age is not the only factor. The planes being grounded range from 30 years old to less than 10.

“It’s a combination of the way they are flown and their chronological age,” Sheffler said.

Up to 24 more Prowlers are expected to be grounded in the next six months, with 18 of those from Whidbey, he said.

The cracks in the tri-fold wings are not visible to the naked eye. Sheffler said the planes were grounded based on analysis of wings removed from similar planes, and by analytical computer modeling.

While wing parts can be replaced fairly quickly, Sheffler said it can take six months to get a Prowler in the air again, as other work is often done at the same time. Repair work is done at depots in Florida.

Sheffler said in deciding how many of the Navy’s 119 Prowler fleet to ground at one time, a balance has to be struck between operational commitments and safety.

“It’s just a matter of doing the choreography to make it happen,” he said.

Second District U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, said continued funding for repairs to the Prowlers is essential. He was instrumental in securing the additional $35 million this week.

“The Prowlers are the workhorse of the military,” Larsen said. “Thy have to fly so the ‘headline’ aircraft can fly.”

The Prowlers have been essential to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, jamming radar so other jets will have a safer path for their missions to follow, Larsen said. During Operation Iraqi Freedom Prowler squadrons from Whidbey flew some of the first missions over Iraq.

In addition to the House bill passed Wednesday, President Bush’s $87 billion supplemental defense budget now being debated in the Senate includes $55 million for Prowler outer wing panel repair.

While the Navy has named the EA-18G as the follow-on to the Prowler, they are not scheduled to take over from the Prowlers for another six years. Sheffler said they will keep the Prowlers flying until then.

“I don’t know of any difficulty that would preclude us from keeping it (the Prowlers) viable until the EA-18G’s come on,” he said.

How much more the Prowlers will cost in repairs before they are put out to pasture is anyone’s guess, but Larsen said money spent on the Prowlers is not wasted.

“It’s good money after good,” he said. “To understand the success of the air power in Afghanistan and Iraq you need to understand the Prowlers. It’s critical to keep the Prowler squadrons in the air.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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