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NTSB Wants Military Plane Grounded

May 28, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A type of surplus military plane that is used in civilian dogfighting classes is in danger of losing its wings in sharp turns and should be grounded until a proper inspection can be developed, a federal safety panel recommended today.

The Beech T-34A, bought by the Air Force in 1950 and later used by the Navy as well, apparently is straining under the heavy gravity of the turns and dives that are common in ``Top Gun″ flying classes in which civilians engage in mock combat in planes flown by flight instructors.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, said such excessive ``G-loading″ may have caused the right wing of a T-34A to tear off on April 19 over Rydall, Ga., sending the plane plummeting to the ground and killing the pilot and his passenger. The plane was operated by Sky Warriors Inc. of Atlanta.

Investigators found extensive fatigue cracking around the wing and in similar areas on the left wing, which remained on the plane but was heavily damaged in the crash. The safety board also learned that cracks had been found in the lower wing spar of a T-34 operated by Texas Air Aces of Spring, Texas, although the parts were replaced and discarded prior to the accident in Rydall.

There is at least one other air combat operator, although the board did not name the company.

While Sky Warriors asked its pilots not to engage in dives or rolls that created strains exceeding four times the weight of gravity, the safety board said a tape of the fatal flight contained an excerpt in which the pilot told the passenger they had just made a 4.5- to 5-G turn. One of Sky Warriors’ T-34s reportedly exceeded 12-G loading during one mission.

The plane was originally certified to 6 Gs.

``The safety board has found no other examples of possible wing-structure fatigue cracking in the long history of the T-34 series of airplanes,″ Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB, wrote in a letter to FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.

``The safety board believes that air combat simulation flights may induce a larger number of high positive wing loading events per hour than other operations,″ Hall added. ``Considering these factors, it is likely that the fatigue cracking on the accident airplane was the result of the loading conditions experienced during the air combat simulation flights.″

The board acknowledged that the current certificate-holder for the T-34, the Raytheon Aircraft Co., issued a safety communique May 19 recommending that the planes not be flown until the FAA makes any decisions stemming from the recommendation.

But Hall said that since the action is not mandatory, the FAA should ``immediately restrict from further flight″ all such planes used in air combat simulations until an inspection can be developed. The safety board also said no more T-34s should enter combat simulation service without the future inspection.

The FAA had no immediate comment, as is its standard practice.

``We’ve just received this,″ said agency spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere. ``We take all recommendations by the NTSB very seriously and we will give these recommendations our utmost consideration.″

A call to Sky Warriors in Atlanta was greeted with a recorded message saying the company was not operating pending the outcome of the investigation. A message left on the line seeking comment was not returned.

Sky Warriors was started in 1990 by former Delta pilot Earl C. Arrowood. The crash killed retired Delta pilot Floyd ``Ted″ McFann Sr., 60, of Alpharetta, Ga., and Delta pilot Daniel Bouck, 51, of Atlanta.

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