Mr. Chairman, thank you for asking me to appear before your committee this afternoon.
Our greatest responsibility is to take good care of our hard-working men and women. And when it comes to their safety, we leave no stone unturned to ensure they live and work with safe and reliable equipment. That's why this hearing is important. I appreciate this opportunity to share with you what the Navy has done -- and what we intend to do -- in order to keep our fine people safe and combat ready.
As you know, Naval aviation is a demanding and at times an unforgiving profession. Day and night our aviators and deck crews are performing extraordinary feats in defense of our country. I have never been more proud of our aviation professionals than I am right now. They are a remarkable group. And this alone is reason enough to take a long, detailed look at why we have had an increase in the F-14 mishap rate over the past few years. The loss of three aircraft over a four week period earlier this year -- and the tragic loss of life -- make this effort even more important.
The CNO ordered a safety stand down in February to take the time to review what was known in order to find out if there were any operational restrictions that needed to be placed on the aircraft. This was a prudent approach and consistent with the basic principles of aviation safety. If there is an undetected mechanical weakness, or some other underlying problem in maintenance or training, our investigations will identify the problem, and we will immediately apply the appropriate remedies.
Additional steps were taken during the month of March. First, the Navy placed interim restrictions on the F-14 in the low altitude, high speed environment. As a result of new information gained from the salvage of the F-14D off the coast of southern California, afterburner use is now prohibited for F-14B s and F-14D s at all altitudes except for operational emergencies. We will reassess these restrictions when the full results of our investigation on the last three F-14 mishaps are known. These restrictions reduce F-14 aircraft operations in a regime where there is little margin for error; but they will not degrade F-14 training and readiness in the near term. The CNO also asked the fleet commanders to review procedures and ensure that safety is given top priority. Additionally, we have directed that operational risk management be a key factor in the planning and execution of all aviation training and operations.
Our mishap investigations into the three F-14 accidents have also been underway during this period and, at this point, there is no common thread evident.
To give you a quick update, the mishap report of the Nashville accident confirms our earlier belief that it was pilot error. Simply, the pilot lost control of the aircraft because of vertigo experienced as a result of an unrestricted climb into the clouds. We did not find any mechanical problems with the aircraft or its TF30 engines. The other F-14A, the third mishap in the series, also was a result of pilot error with the pilot losing control of the aircraft after improperly performing a negative G maneuver during a post-maintenance Functional Check Flight. A decision of whether salvaging this aircraft would substantially contribute to the Mishap Board s finding is currently pending. In the second mishap of the series, this one an F-14D, the Board s finding is on hold pending the engineering investigation of the aircraft and engines with primary focus on the engines. The engineering investigations should be essentially complete by 20 April allowing the Mishap Board to submit their findings shortly thereafter.
The causes of aircraft mishaps are varied and complex. Sometimes we find human error. Sometimes we find mechanical problems. Often it's a combination of both. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, the cause remains undetermined. In the final analysis, the strength of our mishap investigation process lies in our ability to learn from these mishaps; and apply those lessons to the way we operate and maintain our aircraft.
A number of other initiatives in the area of F-14 safety are also underway. We are reviewing how we conduct flight operations for mission and proficiency training. This is part of a continuing process. With the addition of the precision strike mission for F-14 aircrews, there has been a shift in the emphasis of training; flight hours now have to be devoted to air-to-ground training as well as for air-to-air training. While this shift has not produced any apparent decrease in readiness, we are closely monitoring the effect on mission proficiency. The air-to-ground mission is vital and we must be able to conduct the mission effectively and safely. I want you to know we are looking at this closely, as we do an entire review of the F-14 flight training program.
Efforts have also been underway for some time to address the material readiness of the F-14. This is part of a continuous readiness review process that looks at all aspects of Naval Aviation. While the F-14 continues to meet current operational commitments, we have been working hard to improve those aircraft systems which are the highest readiness degraders; which include the radar transmitter, inertial navigation system, and radar antenna. The service life and health of the F-14 is monitored closely, and we are funding over $350M in structural safety modifications and $650M in operational and logistical enhancements over the FYDP.
Over the past several years we have looked at many different ways to improve the F-14A. We made the decision not to upgrade the engines because they would be too expensive to put in an aircraft which would be removed from service a few years after being re-engined. Through extensive in-service engineering analysis, we are installing a low cost, but very effective means of alerting aircrew of impending catastrophic TF30 engine failure. This cockpit warning light will alert the aircrew to a sudden rise in engine breather pressure [an indication of impending engine failure] in time to reduce engine power and safely land the aircraft. This new system will greatly increase aircrew awareness and further contribute to safe F-14A operations.
Also, the Navy has decided to incorporate the GEC Marconi Digital Flight Control System (DFCS) into all F-14 aircraft to significantly improve flight safety. This modification will affect 211 active duty and 16 reserve F-14 aircraft. The recently completed Foreign Comparative Test (FCT) has shown that DFCS drastically decreases the chance of entering out-of-control flight and improves the F-14's ability to recover, if a spin is entered. Departure from controlled flight has been a primary causal factor in 35 F-14 mishaps. Also significant is its ability to improve carrier approach line-up control addressing a problem often cited as a contributing factor in carrier landing mishaps. The incorporation of DFCS will increase safety, both during "edge-of-the-envelope" maneuvering flight and carrier landings.
As you know, we intend to begin retirement of the F-14A's in FY2001 to be fully out of the inventory by FY2004. These squadrons will transition to the F/A-18F Super Hornet. The transition plan was developed last summer as part of our ongoing efforts to reduce the age of fleet aircraft. This is in line with our overall plan to reduce the age of all of our fleet aircraft by aggressively retiring, when possible, our oldest aircraft.
Mr. Chairman, I assure you that we are on top of this issue and that we have a good plan for the F-14 community, now and in the future. It's balanced and takes into consideration both the safety and combat readiness of our people and equipment.
Again, thank you for this opportunity.