Search continues for four Navy fliers after crash off Big Sur

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POINT SUR, Calif. -- The U.S. Coast Guard continued to search the Pacific Ocean 80 miles southwest of Monterey for four U.S. Navy pilots missing after their two fighter jets collided Friday during a combat exercise.

Two cutters searched for the pilots through the night, and at first light Saturday, an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter was sent to aid the search, Coast Guard spokeswoman Veronica Bandrowski said.

"We'll continue to search until all probability of survival has been exhausted," she said.

Computer-aided search programs, which calculate sea changes, wind and other factors, are guiding searchers over about 40 square miles where the pilots may have drifted.

The Coast Guard sent home three commercial fishing vessels that helped in the search Friday.

The two F/A-18-F jets from Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno collided at about 9:40 a.m. Friday while engaged in an exercise with six other fighter jets, said Lemoore spokesman Dennis McGrath. The two Super Hornets were not carrying any weapons.

Officials haven't released the identities of the missing pilots, all of whom were experienced aviators who had flown F-14 Tomcats over Afghanistan, said McGrath. Their families have been notified.

At Lemoore, everyone is trying to continue with their duties, despite worrying about the missing pilots, McGrath said.

"The longer you don't find someone, the more you get concerned," McGrath said. "The flying hasn't stopped, you just get on with your job."

F/A-18F jets, which seat two aviators, are designed for traditional strike operations and close air support. F/A class fighter jets commonly are equipped with Vulcan 20mm cannons and can carry external payloads of general purpose bombs, mines and rockets.

The Navy is the only branch of the military that uses Super Hornets, McGrath said.

It was the first crash involving a Super Hornet since the Navy launched the fighter jets in 1999. All squadrons of the jets are based at Lemoore, but recently the base deployed a squadron aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln, which is currently at sea in the Middle East, McGrath said.

Each Super Hornet costs $57 million, weighs 33 tons and has a combat flight range of 1,275 nautical miles, according to a Navy Web site.

When McDonnell Douglas -- now owned by Boeing -- was building Super Hornets in the 1990s, critics said the aircraft had problems that were never fully fixed.

The jets suffered from what is called "wing drop phenomenon," which would cause the aircraft to drop to one side during certain dogfight maneuvers, Marcus Corbin, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C. told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Corbin said during "wing drop" a pilot may not be able to discern the location of near-flying planes, and he was skeptical that redesigns fixed the problem.

The "wing drop" problem was supposed to have been fixed, McGrath said, noting that such problems are usually addressed in the Navy's testing and evaluation stages, before the jets ever got to Lemoore.

"By the time they're here they've normally resolved all of the difficulties," McGrath said.


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