The Deadly Trainer

Air Force cadets are dying in a new aircraft with a dubious mission and many mechanical problems

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Terri Weber's last conversation with her son Pace took place just as his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot was taking off. But she heard something besides excitement in her son's voice. "Our planes are having a lot of mechanical problems," Pace told his mom from his Air Force Academy dorm last June, four days before he was due home on his summer break. His plane's engine had unexpectedly conked out in mid-flight, forcing the instructor to grab the controls and make an emergency landing. "Sometimes it's scary," Pace said over the phone. "When we land, I'm really sweating." Terri recalls listening to her firstborn in her darkened living room and saying, "It sounds like there are a lot of problems, so be really careful. I want you home in one piece." Forty-eight hours later, an Air Force officer knocked at the door of Weber's Miami town house, rousing her out of bed. He told her that her son's airplane had crashed earlier that day, killing him instantly.

The most dangerous plane to fly in the U.S. Air Force today isn't the screaming F-15 Eagle, the Baghdad-bombing F-117 Nighthawk or the thunderous B-1 Lancer. In fact, it's not a jet at all but the first plane fledgling pilots fly--the powerful, propeller-driven trainer flown by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Six people--three cadets and their instructor pilots--have died in three crashes of the T-3 Firefly trainer since the planes began flying there in 1995. The T-3's crash record is all the more startling because from 1964 to 1994, cadets flew the trainer's predecessor, the T-41, without a single fatality. But in 1995, the Air Force Academy said goodbye to the plodding T-41 and its sturdy safety record, replacing it with the muscular T-3.

That decision is starting to look like a mistake. A TIME investigation, based on dozens of interviews as well as a review of Air Force documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests that the T-3 is a plane too perilous for veteran pilots, much less beginners, to fly. Its single engine has failed 66 times, nearly half of them during flight or at perilous moments like takeoffs and landings. Its brakes are so poor that the Air Force has banned student solo flights out of concern that a novice can't bring the plane to a full stop without rolling off the end of the runway. The Air Force has grounded the 110-plane fleet for 10 different modifications in an effort to solve the mechanical problems. And in December, after TIME asked a series of questions about the T-3, acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters ordered a comprehensive review of the aircraft's purchase, testing and operation.

The T-3's introduction to Air Force training was a particular passion of General Merrill McPeak, the service's chief of staff in the early 1990s. McPeak, a fighter pilot who had flown with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision-flying team, is now retired but still flies his own homemade, acrobatic RV-4 aircraft. "The T-41 is your grandmother's airplane," says McPeak of the T-3's predecessor. "Our mission is to train warrior-pilots, not dentists to fly their families to Acapulco."

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