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Associated Press November 17, 2001

Navy investigators search for clues into Prowler crash

The Navy has started an investigation into the crash of an EA-6B Prowler jet near this Olympic Peninsula town during a routine training exercise from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Some pilots say the jet, dubbed "Sky Pig," can be tough to handle.

"It's a difficult aircraft without a lot of room for error," said former Navy Lt. Vince Verges, who lost his hand when he was forced to eject from a Prowler that crashed in 1992. "It's big, not very aerodynamic, and easy to lose control of." Thirty aviators have died in Prowler accidents since 1980, The Seattle Times reported. In 1998, four aviators based at Whidbey Island died in Norfolk when their EA-6B crashed into another plane on the deck of the USS Enterprise.

The Navy Safety Center estimates two-thirds of those accidents are caused by crew error.

"All tactical aircraft have a higher crash rate than cargo aircraft or bombers," said Tim Brown, a senior associate with Globalsecurity, a Virginia-based think tank. "They're naturally harder planes to fly and have more dangerous missions."

A Navy team led by an investigator from the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., hiked into the Olympic Natural Forest on Friday to comb the area for clues and begin cleanup of the most recent crash.

The crash site - a steep, heavily forested canyon about 20 miles north of Forks - and roads leading into the area were cordoned off by the Forest service.

The crew was conducting electronic countermeasure exercises Thursday afternoon. The jet went down in heavy rain and fog, although Navy officials say there was no evidence weather played a role in the crash.

Two instructors and a student ejected, landing near Klahowya campground, about seven miles from the crash site.

One man suffered a leg injury and was released on crutches Friday from Olympic Memorial Hospital in Port Angeles. The Navy said it is not releasing the aviators' names at the crew's request.

There were no bombs or radioactive material aboard the aircraft, said Lt. Kyra Hawn, spokeswoman for the Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet headquarters in San Diego.

The four-seat EA-6B is an electronic monitoring and jamming version of the A-6 attack bomber.

The Prowler that crashed Thursday was part of the Tactical Electronic Attack Squadron 129, known as the "Vikings," a training squadron based at Whidbey that trains all Navy, Mariner and Air Force Prowler pilots.

It was flying over the Olympic Military Operating Area, which is used for in-flight air-refueling training, electronic-warfare training and combat maneuvering.

The $60 million plane, built by Northrop Grumman, went out of production about 10 years ago, Hawn said.

The Pentagon had thought there would be less of a need for jammers with the advent of stealth technology in the 1980s - which was to make the new fighters and bombers virtually invisible to enemy radars.

But Prowlers commonly support even B-2 bombers, which boast of the world's most advanced stealth technology.

After Thursday's crash, 122 Prowlers remain in service, Hawn said.

copyright Associated Press