Group concerned about recent crashes of two military jets

LAS VEGAS - A military watchdog group worries two jet crashes in the past week might signal a growing threat to rural communities near the Nellis Air Force Range.

''It does concern me,'' Grace Potorti, executive director of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability in Reno, said Wednesday. ''It is a growing concern in Nevada as the expansion of activities at Nellis continues.''

On Tuesday, an F-16 jet crashed 70 miles north of Nellis Air Force Base after it apparently nipped another jet while on a routine training exercise.

The pilot, who was not identified, ejected and was not seriously injured, base spokesman Lt. Allen Herritage said.

The $20 million plane crashed about 5 p.m. atop a mesa in a remote desert area, Herritage said. He said there were no populated areas near the crash site.

Another F-16 landed a short time later with minor damage to its structure, leading investigators to speculate the two planes struck each other in midair, Herritage said. That pilot was not hurt.

The Air Force is investigating.

It was the second jet crash in a week for the air base. A $15 million F-15 crashed north of Rachel, 125 miles north of Las Vegas, on Aug. 3 while the pilot was leading seven other planes in a training exercise.

The pilot, Capt. Christopher Kirby, ejected and was not injured.

The cause of that crash is under investigation.

Herritage said the crashes were coincidental.

''We don't expect it to happen again,'' he said.

Nellis is one of the largest training bases in the nation, mostly because of the land available - 3.1 million acres on the Nellis Air Force Range, just north of the base.

Small towns bordering the Nellis Range are routinely buzzed by pilots engaging in simulated dogfights in the restricted airspace.

''I don't think it sounds like someone knows what they're doing,'' said Cordy Benezet, who lives just east of the range in Caliente. ''That's cause for alarm.''

Potorti's organization and ranchers and environmentalists in Nevada and eight other states want to halt low-level military training flights. They have filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon in January seeking an injunction to ban Air Force training flights until he government conducts a broad assessment of their environmental impact on livestock, fish and wildlife.

But the House approved a measure in May that would block the lawsuit. The issue is pending in the Senate.

Herritage said he was unsure what altitude the planes were flying.

''Any time there's an accident, we are concerned,'' Herritage said. ''We take our safety very seriously. In order to train to fight our nation's battles we have to train. It just shows you the inherent danger in this job.''

Potorti said her group will be interested in seeing the crash investigation reports.

''Any time you have aircraft crashing it puts people in a very precarious situation,'' she said.

On June 15, 1999, two F-15C Eagles from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., collided in midair over Lincoln County. One of the pilots suffered minor injuries; the other was not injured.


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