POINT SUR, Calif. (Oct. 20) - The U.S. Coast Guard called off its search Saturday for four U.S. Navy officers missing since their two fighter jets collided during a combat exercise Friday.
The search ended at 6:30 p.m. because of sea and weather conditions, and because about 33 hours had passed since the pilots were reported missing, according to Coast Guard spokesman Matt Juillerat.
The Navy identified the missing officers as Lt. Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, a weapons systems officer from New Orleans; Lt. Joel A. Korkowski, 30, a pilot from Phoenix; Lt. Matthew S. Shubzda, 27, a pilot from Dallas; and Lt. Stephen N. Benson, 26, a weapons system officer from Virginia Beach, Va.
The four were members of Strike Fighter Squadron 41, based at Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno.
Two cutters, an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and three commercial fishing vessels helped search the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean 80 miles southwest of Monterey, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Veronica Bandrowski said. The Coast Guard also used computer-aided search programs, which calculate sea changes, wind and other factors, to help guide searchers over about 40 square miles where the pilots may have drifted.
The two F/A-18F jets that took off from Lemoore collided during a training exercise with six other fighter jets, said Lemoore spokesman Dennis McGrath. The two Super Hornets were not carrying any weapons.
The officers were all experienced aviators who had flown F-14 Tomcats over Afghanistan, said McGrath. Their families have been notified.
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 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 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 the Navy Web site.
When McDonnell Douglas - now owned by Boeing - was building Super Hornets in the 1990s, 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, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, 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 such problems are usually addressed in the Navy's testing and evaluation stages, which happened 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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