America's aging aviation force: Father, son flew same fighter jet 30 years apart

Dave Deptula, a retired three-star general, knows the risks associated with flying older aircraft. While serving as the joint task force commander in 1998 and 1999 for Operation Northern Watch, Deptula flew 82 combat missions over Iraq. On one mission, as he was headed to a tanker to refuel, the master caution light came on, revealing a problem with the plane. His fuel gauge went to zero. Meanwhile, he was 500 miles away from his base. Fortunately, he was able to land safely.

“The insulation was so old it simply had deteriorated to the extent where it came off and all of the wiring shorted out,” Deptula recalled. “Those are the kinds of things that happen when airplanes get to certain ages.”

Deptula’s aircraft was grounded for repairs, requiring another set of planes to travel from Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, on other side of the world. It’s not an isolated incident. In the years that followed, the Air Force was forced to ground its entire F-15 fleet in 2007 after one fighter disintegrated during a training mission in Missouri.

These frightening experiences demonstrate the consequences of an aging aviation force. Deptula worries that fiscal constraints imposed on the military — including more than $492 billion of mandatory defense cuts on the horizon — will result in future challenges.

“I hear people talk about, well you know, the U.S. military spends more money than the next 17 nations combined,” Deptula said. “Well, the next 17 nations combined are not committed to maintaining peace and stability around the world. We are.”

The Heritage Foundation featured Deptula’s story as a part of a three-part series highlighting the risks of budget cuts to the nation’s military. The first part told the story of Col. Kerry Kachejian, an Army Reserve engineer, who relied on sport-utility vehicles during his service in Iraq.

Deptula uses the term “geriatric aviation force” to describe the current state of affairs. He has firsthand experience. He earned his wings and flew an F-15 for the first time in 1977. Thirty years later, another Deptula boarded the aircraft. His son, Lt. David A. Deptula II, flew the same F-15 at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan.

The Wall Street Journal documented the amazing father-son story last fall to illustrate the challenges facing the aging force. The elder Deptula recounted how the fighter was originally designed for a 4,000-hour service life. That was later extended to 8,000 hours.

“We have really flown these aircraft well beyond what originally would be believed as their replacement lifetime,” Deptula said of the F-15s. “And now, because of some of the fiscal constraints that are being imposed on the Department of Defense, there is consideration being given to extending the lifetime even further.”

Before retiring from the Air Force in 2010 as a lieutenant general, Deptula traveled to Kadena for a high-aspect mission with his son. He flew the F-15 and saw some of its deficiencies compared to newer aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.

Heritage’s James Jay Carafano, an expert on defense and national security issues, worries that under the Obama administration, the military will continue to suffer from ill-advised budgeting.

“Today’s air forces are the oldest in the history of U.S. air forces,” Carafano explained. “Replacing old airframes and ensuring the U.S. maintains its superiority over potential adversaries is a national security priority. Yet Obama has done little to show he takes the challenge of modernizing the air fleets seriously.”

The result is troubling: The U.S. military is jeopardy of sacrificing dominance in the air environment that came with advancements in the 1960s and 1970s. Simply modernizing and updating aircraft won’t provide the same edge against adversaries.

With more budget cuts looming, however, will Congress do anything to reverse course?

Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism operation at The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertBluey