US Air Force Battles Aging Planes

Average Military Aircraft Is 24 Years Old

During the Vietnam War, the average age of aircraft used by the US Air Force was nine years. Now, the average age is 24 years... with aircraft such as the B-52H Stratofortress logging in at greater than 40.

"These are geriatric airplanes," said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a former F-15 fighter pilot who's now Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Combat readiness has declined by 17 percent, Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes said at a budget briefing in early February -- due, in part, to "the aging fleet and our ability to get those airplanes in the air."

Today, more than 800 aircraft -- 14 percent of the fleet -- are grounded or operating under restricted flying conditions, he said.

The age issue has alarmed the Air Force leadership, which is pushing against rising budget pressures to modernize and restock the fleet, according to the Wichita Eagle.

"It was a looming crisis," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, VA. "And now, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a looming disaster."

The Air Force contends it needs to be modernized with state-of-the-art aircraft. Critics maintain that renovating the current fleet will serve the same purpose to which the Air Force counters with the fact that modern, next-generation fighters are what are necessary for the US to maintain air superiority.

This is heavily underlined by the emerging threat of missile and fighter development of countries such as China and Russia. Not to mention the growing nuclear bomb threats of countries such as North Korea.

Deptula's son followed in his father's footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force. He now flies the same vintage F-15s Deptula flew in 1979.

The question is what's going to go wrong next," said the three-star general. "We have never flown fighters this old. If you're driving a 28-year-old car, you can expect some problems. And 28-year-old cars don't go flying around at 700 miles per hour and pull 9 G's."

The F-15 was once the world's preeminent aircraft. The fighter was built to fly at Mach 2.3 but now cannot exceed Mach 1.5 on training missions to avoid over-stressing the aircraft.

Issues surrounding the dangers of flying aircraft past their prime are studied by the Aging Aircraft Research Laboratory developed in 2002 by the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita. Lab director Dale Cope said the two most prevalent effects of aging are corrosion and metal fatigue, caused by hour after hour of changing air pressure on the aircraft structure.

Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley has made replacement of the 48-year-old Stratotanker one of his top priorities. Boeing Co. and Airbus are competing for the potentially multi-billion dollar contract to build a new tanker fleet.

Congressional leaders such as Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee, told the Eagle he plans to take a "hard look" at Air Force requests like next-generation fighters such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. But, Democrat-heavy Congress feels that funding troops takes precedence over "costly acquisitions."