CANADA

FALLOUT FROM A FIERY DEATH

A FATAL MIDAIR ACCIDENT RAISES NEW QUESTIONS OVER THE SAFETY OF CANADA’S FIGHTER PLANES

PEETER KOPVILLEM April 30 1990
CANADA

FALLOUT FROM A FIERY DEATH

A FATAL MIDAIR ACCIDENT RAISES NEW QUESTIONS OVER THE SAFETY OF CANADA’S FIGHTER PLANES

PEETER KOPVILLEM April 30 1990

FALLOUT FROM A FIERY DEATH

CANADA

A FATAL MIDAIR ACCIDENT RAISES NEW QUESTIONS OVER THE SAFETY OF CANADA’S FIGHTER PLANES

The accident in the skies over West Germany last week occurred suddenly—and with tragic consequences. At about 4 p.m. on April 17, two sleek Canadian Forces CF-18 Hornets on a training manoeuvre approached the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, flying at an altitude of about 9,000 feet. Witnesses later said that the fighter jets suddenly veered into a U-turn and disappeared into clouds.

There, they collided, sending fiery debris raining down over Karlsruhe, a city of 285,000. One of the pilots,

35-year-old Capt. Reginald deCoste of Jonquière, Que., managed to eject safely, suffering two broken heels when he landed near a busy highway. But the other pilot,

Capt. Timothy Leuty, 30, of Meaford, Ont., died after failing to eject. The accident brought to 11 the number of CF-18s that have crashed since Canada began acquiring 138 of the U.S.-built aircraft in 1982. And, for Leuty’s family, grief was compounded by the fact that the pilot had almost completed his tour of duty in Europe. Said his father, Stanley Leuty: “We were really looking forward to his coming home.”

The accident came at an uncertain time for Canada’s beleaguered military. With the decline in East-West tensions, a debate is taking

place within the defence department over whether the military should be radically altered from a combat force into an organization more committed to peacekeeping and civilian duties—such as the war against drugs. Last week’s tragedy, which occurred during a simulated dogfight, only underscored that debate. It also angered West Germans, who have been urging NATO to curtail its training flights. And because the jets were the third and fourth CF18s to crash since January, the collision renewed debate about the safety of the $25million planes and the effectiveness of Canada’s fighter-pilot training program.

Still, many experts said that the incidents, however tragic, were simply part of the accepted risks of flying fighter jets at speeds approaching twice the speed of sound. Said Maj. Richard Darlington, 34, a CF-18 flight instructor at the Canadian Forces base in Cold Lake, Alta.: “If you’re going to take an airplane like this and train in a demanding mission, there is risk involved.” Added Darlington, who has logged almost 1,200 hours on CF-18s: “It’s a greater risk driving from here to Edmonton on the highway than doing the most demanding F-18 mission.”

But if pilots accept the risks of flying fighter jets, many West Germans are approaching the limits of tolerance. Although only two people on the ground were injured as a result of the accident, debris ignited a number of fires in Karlsruhe—and inflamed an already smouldering debate over NATO air ex§ ercises. Opposition 6 politicians quickly renewed demands that Chancellor Helmut Kohl insist upon an end to training flights over populated areas. Kohl’s government responded by asking Canada to suspend its flights. Shortly after, Maj.-Gen. Brian Smith, commander of the Canadian Forces in Europe, announced that,while some training flights would continue, dogfights would be suspended “until the cause of Tuesday’s crash has been identified.”

But that investigation may take months to complete. And in the meantime, questions again surfaced about the reliability of the Hornet, which is also used by Spain, Australia and the U.S. navy. According to many independent experts, early flaws in the CF-18 have long since been corrected. “Overall, it’s nigh onto outstanding,” said Allan Ditter, editor of Aviation and Aerospace magazine in Toronto. And Canadian military spokesmen pointed out that only one of the nine CF-18 crashes prior to last week’s tragedy had resulted from mechanical failure. And although they acknowledged that CF-18S have now crashed at the rate of 0.657 per 10,000 flight hours—higher than the initially estimated rate of 0.560—Mark Daly, news editor of the London-based Jane’s Defence Weekly, noted that such an attrition rate was “below average” for the aircraft.

But the explanations failed to mollify some observers. Alexander Morrison, executive di-

rector of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, said that it is time to conduct a review of the CF-18 in the “widest possible sense.” For his part, Lt.-Gen. Fred Sutherland, the air force’s highest ranking officer, said that a review has been launched to ensure that safety was not being compromised during training flights. But the general ruled out a wider inquiry—to the chagrin of critics. Said Newfoundland MP and retired rear admiral Fred Mifflin, the Liberals’ associate defence critic: “You just know that there’s something not right when you have so many crashes.”

Other experts wondered if Canada’s pilots receive enough time in the cockpit to maintain their skills. “With all the cuts in military spending, there may be less flying time,” said one former CF-18 pilot. But Darlington noted that, over the past five years, training time has

remained consistent. “The most important thing in terms of maintaining our capability and safety is to have well-trained pilots,” he said. “And you can only train by flying.” In fact, Canadian CF18 pilots log an average of 240 flight hours a year— more than the minimum that NATO prescribes for pilots to maintain their combat skills. And it is considerably more than the flight hours logged by NATO allies such as Belgium, whose pilots log a mere 130 hours. Said Paul Beaver, a Jane’s editor: “Canadians are amongst the best in the world—flying one of the best aircraft in the world.”

That reputation has made Canadian fighter pilots a valuable commodity. Although Canada’s air force should have 2,200 pilots, there are about 1,900 in uniform. Last year alone, 200 pilots left— most for jobs with commercial airlines. “We just cannot compete dollarwise with the commercial carriers,” explained Col. Conrad Platz, who heads up a defence department study of why pilots are leaving. And the fact that Canada’s fighter pilots can put in only one four-year tour of duty on a CF-18 before they are assigned to less exciting duties also drives some pilots back into civilian life. Said Ditter: “The kind who are leaving have done their tour and know they’ll never get another chance.”

But Platz noted that the uncertainty over the future of the Canadian Armed Forces may also be influencing the

exodus. “The changing world

situation makes them question whether they have a future in the Forces,” he said. Others say that the government must move to end the uncertainty. “As long as the fighter community is given a valid role, even if it is searching for drug smugglers, then we’d probably have very high morale,” Darlington said.

But, for the moment, a changed role for the Canadian military is still a matter of debate. And in the meantime, Darlington acknowledged that almost every fighter pilot has probably considered a civilian career. “The lure is so attractive,” he said. Indeed, Leuty’s father said last week that his son’s goal had also been to fly commercially. It was a dream that came to a sudden end in the cloudy West German sky.

PEETER KOPVILLEM

PETER LEWIS

BRUCE WALLACE