A Northrop F-20 jet fighter crashed Tuesday in a remote area of eastern Canada during a training flight for an upcoming acrobatic display, killing Northrop test pilot David Barnes.
The accident is the second F-20 crash in less than a year and represents a major setback to Northrop’s privately funded effort to develop and sell a military jet fighter to the Air Force or to U.S. allies.
The Los Angeles-based company made no immediate comment about the effect the crash would have on the program. Northrop has yet to sell any of the planes but has been encouraged recently by support in Congress.
Northrop has built three F-20s at its Hawthorne plant for flight testing and sales demonstrations. It had invested $774 million in the program through the end of 1984 and plans to spend $148.5 million more this year. A fourth plane now in production will not be completed until the end of 1986.
The F-20 that crashed Tuesday had stopped for three days in Newfoundland on its way to the Paris Air Show, which runs from May 30 to June 9. The two-engine aircraft crashed about one mile north of Goose Bay, an isolated city in the province’s Labrador region.
Former Air Force Pilot
Barnes, 40, is survived by his wife and three children. A native of Downey, he joined Northrop in 1982 after an Air Force career that included service as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known. On Tuesday evening, accident specialists for the Canadian Ministry of Transportation arrived in Goose Bay to open a government investigation.
“We talked to the flight controller, and he said there was no indication from the pilot that there was any problem,” Goose Bay airport manager Dave Massie said.
Several other witnesses said the F-20 had practiced a series of rigorous, high-speed maneuvers during the last several days. In the past, F-20 flight acrobatic displays have included climbing spirals, full-circle loops and turns that exerted nine times the force of gravity on the plane and pilot.
Massie said Barnes was flying in clear weather and was preparing to land after having completed a practice run when the accident occurred. Initial reports from the scene indicated that he did not eject from the single-seat aircraft.
Way-Station to Europe
The Goose Bay airport, a major air base during World War II, is now used by military aircraft as a way-station to Europe.
The accident occurs at a particularly inopportune time for Northrop because of the increasing sentiment in Congress to force the Air Force to buy some F-20s. In addition, Northrop’s annual shareholders’ meeting is scheduled for today.
“It is a blow for Northrop--the loss of the pilot and the loss of an aircraft,” said Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace analyst at First Boston Corp. “Just as Northrop seemed to have some momentum going, this kind of tragedy is a setback.”
“The accident comes at the most inappropriate time,” said Gregory Kieselmann, an analyst at Morgan, Olmstead, Kennedy & Gardner, a Los Angeles securities firm. “Now, members of Congress would be in an embarrassing position to support the F-20. Two crashes out of three aircraft is not a good record.”
Indeed, Wall Street reacted to the news with a sharp sell-off. Northrop shares closed at $45 per share, down $2.625 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The previous F-20 crash, which occurred in South Korea last October, was blamed on pilot error after an accident investigation conducted by Northrop. In that accident, Northrop chief test pilot Darrell Cornell was killed after he also failed to eject.