Five U.S. Air Force F-16 jet fighters, each costing some $20 million, crashed in July, killing three airmen and once again putting a spotlight on the service's workhorse combat plane.
On July 6, one Fighting Falcon, as the plane is also known, went down off the South Carolina coast, killing the pilot. A July 17 crash near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., claimed the lives of a pilot and passenger. On July 18, the pilot of an F-16 patrolling above northern Iraq had to bail out over southeastern Turkey because of problems the Air Force attributed to engine trouble. He survived. Pilots likewise survived a July 26 crash into an Illinois cornfield and a July 23 wreck near Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
They were all what the Air Force calls "Class-A" mishaps, in which someone dies or a plane sustains more than $1 million in damage. Usually such "mishaps" are crashes, and all are investigated.
"Obviously, it's unusual that we have that many in one month … and obviously this has gotten the attention of the senior leaders of the Air Force," said Col. Dave Williamson, Air Force chief of safety issues at the Pentagon.
Williamson does not believe, though, that the dramatic spike in July indicates any overall negative trends in F-16 safety, which has been a subject of criticism in recent years.
Williamson says that F-16 crash rates have generally been getting better. And an ABCNEWS.com analysis of Air Force statistics shows, even with last month's accidents, the number of crashes so far this fiscal year, 13, is about on par with the average over the last 19 years.
"[Five crashes] is an anomaly," he said. "The accident trends in the Air Force are going down very, very dramatically over the course of the last 10 years in our aviation mishaps, and it is true also in the F-16 community."
Compared to Other Aircraft
Air Force statistics show that Fighting Falcons have crashed an average of 13 times a year since 1982, when the plane was first flown heavily, costing an average $260 million annually in destroyed aircraft.
The statistics also show the Air Force's F-16s are more prone to crash than its other aircraft.
While there are more F-16s in service than other planes — nearly 1,400 — meaning there are more opportunities for them to crash, they also crash at greater rates. Over the past 19 fiscal years, from 1982 to 2000, the Air Force averaged about 4.5 Class-A mishaps for every 100,000 flight hours per year for its F-16s.
That's significantly higher than those of its other aircraft, including the other front-line fighter, the F-15, which is made by Boeing.
The F-15 has a lifetime Class-A mishap rate of 2.53, and has had only two such mishaps this year and three in 2000. The only other aircraft to have a Class-A this year was the A-10. It had one.
The Navy says its most widely flown, multi-role aircraft, the twin-engine carrier-based F/A-18 C/Ds, have a lifetime Class-A rate of 3.45.
The F-16's average rate, though, was higher during the first 10 years of that period, 5.6, than during the most recent nine, when it was 3.3, showing improving safety.
With July's crashes and two months to go before the end of the fiscal year, the Fighting Falcons's rate of Class-A mishaps in 2001 is 4.5.
Different Missions, Aircraft Types
Supporters of the F-16 say the plane's generally higher destruction rate than that of other Air Force aircraft isn't necessarily a fault of the plane, but rather, is a factor of the types of missions it flies.
Joe Stout, a spokesman for F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin, said the plane performs more challenging missions than other Air Force aircraft.
"The F-15 is a single mission airplane [in] both of its variants, the F-15E, which is an air-to-ground airplane, and the F-15C, which is where most of the hours with the F-15 fleet have been racked up. And they're typically flying at a pretty high altitude, going out in open skies," he said. "Whereas the F-16 many times is flying pretty close to the ground and is moving pretty fast.
"Statistically, the F-16 is considered the safest single-engine fighter and the safest multi-role fighter in the history of the Air Force," he said.
Still, F-16 accidents in recent years have prompted the Air Force and members of Congress, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to comment on a need for solutions. McCain in 2000 urged fellow legislators to devote millions of dollars more to upgrading the aircraft, following a series of crashes attributed to engine problems.
The Air Force had asked Congress for more than $100 million to expedite engine repairs and upgrades.
Another explanation for the higher F-16 mishap rates is that unlike the F-15 and the Navy's F-18 aircraft, the F-16 has only one engine and so no backup in the event of engine failure, said Williamson.
"With a single-engine aircraft, we will have at least some number of engine mishaps," Williamson said, adding, "That doesn't mean we accept it."
Stout, whose company continues to sell F-16s to the Air Force in small numbers and widely around the world, said a single engine is not necessarily less safe. He said a disabled F-16 under certain circumstances is able to cruise for some distance like a glider.
And he noted the Joint Strike Fighter, scheduled to begin replacing F-16s and other aircraft later this decade, will be single-engine.
Note to readers: A previous version of this story referred to F-16 aircraft as "Vipers." The official name of the aircraft is the Fighting Falcon. In response to reader comments, we've changed the reference. However, the Air Force and pilots who fly the plane also call F-16s Vipers. Former Gulf War F-16 fighter pilot Keith Rosenkranz published a book in 1999 with a forward by Dick Cheney about the role of F-16s in the Gulf called Vipers in the Storm. There is an organization for F-16 pilots called the F-16 Viper Pilots Association with a stated purpose to "[p]erpetuate the history of the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft called the 'Viper'"; the Air Force's Flying Safety magazine has published articles titled, "Viper Mishaps FY 97" and "Viper Mishaps FY 96." — David Ruppe