Parts Falling From Aircraft Are a Headache for the Navy : Battle Waged to Prevent ‘TFOAs’

Times Staff Writer

As a Navy SH-3 helicopter approached North Island Naval Air Station for a routine landing in 1982, a 30-pound aluminum door fell off and plunged about 500 feet into a condominium swimming pool in Coronado.

The door narrowly missed two dozen sunbathers and came within inches of striking four young girls, who were the only ones in the pool at the Coronado Shores. The young swimmers said they were “scared to death” by the tumbling 5-by-6-foot door.

Each year hundreds of panels, flaps, fuel tanks, antennas, missiles and other parts routinely fly off high-performance Navy aircraft. Nearly two-thirds of these accidents are due to material failures or design deficiencies, according to Navy records.


Navy officials are quick to point out that the odds of a bystander being injured by an flying aircraft part are “remote” because most Navy flights take place over unpopulated areas.

However, Navy officials in Washington last year became so concerned about the “wide-scope problem” that they initiated an awareness and prevention program to cut down on the frequency of stray parts falling off Navy jets.

Part of their concern arose from the rapid growth of residential development around Navy air stations such as Miramar Naval Air Station.

Originally, the program was called Aircraft Component Retention Improvement Program. But as part of a Navy-wide push to eliminate gobbledygook and an attempt to drive home a safety message to aircraft personnel, Navy managers came up with an unusually direct title: “Things Falling Off Aircraft.”

But the catchy name soon became just another Navy acronym--TFOA. Capt. Bruce Kenton said that when he first heard Navy officials refer to the program as “TOFA,” he thought it was “something you eat.”

TFOA is defined in Navy manuals as “a naval aviationwide problem in which aircraft parts or stores are unintentionally departing aircraft in flight.” The program requires all Navy pilots and aircraft inspection crews to file written reports each time “any ‘thing’ leaves an aircraft without the intention of the crew,” according to Navy manuals.


Since 1981, about 2,300 TFOA cases have been reported, according to statistics compiled by the Navy Safety Center in Norfolk, Va. The actual number of TFOA incidents is much higher because pilots were not required to report fallen parts until last year.

From January, 1985, through May of this year, Navy and Marine Corps pilots have reported a total of 1,282 TFOA incidents, according to a Navy spokesman in San Diego. Of those, 463 have occurred in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

Despite the new strict reporting requirements, the Navy Safety Center declined to provide The Times with any TFOA statistics for Southern California or the entire Navy. A spokesman for the Navy Safety Center would only say that in 1985 about four TFOA incidents occurred for every 10,000 flight hours.

According to Navy officials, other military branches and commercial aviation do not keep track of similar statistics.

“It’s not a problem unique to Navy aviation, although probably it is quite a bit more prevalent simply because we operate high performance jets in high-speed maneuvers,” said Capt. Jim Morford, force safety officer for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. “That, basically, is the majority of the problem. . . . You put them under stress, bend the airplane (and) things pop occasionally. . . .

“We, fortunately, have suffered no fatal incidents from things falling off aircraft, at least not in my recollection.”


Morford estimated that more than 95% of all TFOA incidents occur over water or remote areas where pilots exert stress on Navy jets by practicing bombing missions and flying at supersonic speeds. He said Navy pilots flying over populated areas are required to restrict their speed to 250 knots and not conduct tricky maneuvers.

Morford said that, with the exception of the Coronado swimming pool incident, he is not aware of another TFOA incident that threatened lives in Southern California.

“Of course, that’s the bottom line,” Morford said. “We don’t want that to happen. We don’t need that kind of grief, certainly.”

However, The Times has learned of five cases since 1981 of Navy jets dropping heavy parts on or near Miramar Naval Air Station, which is surrounded by busy residential and commercial areas.

- Dec. 6, 1984: Two large fuel tanks, weighing about 2,000 pounds each, came crashing to the ground shortly after an F-14 Tomcat took off. The tanks landed at the end of the runway, and the jet returned safely.

- April 17, 1984: An F-14 landing at Miramar released a target-towing cable too early, causing a 12-pound pipe to fall on a furniture store truck traveling on Kearny Villa Road. The pipe and cable ripped two gaping holes in the truck, causing an estimated $15,000 in damage. The driver and his passenger said they could have been killed or seriously injured if the pipe had hit a foot closer.


- Nov. 4, 1982: A 450-pound pylon fell off an F-4 Phantom jet approaching Miramar and narrowly missed traffic on Interstate 15. Pylons are detachable components about 6 feet long and 18 inches wide that attach under both wings. They are used on the F-4 to carry extra fuel tanks or weapons. The pylon that fell was not carrying anything.

- Oct. 6, 1981: An E-2C Hawkeye departing Miramar lost part of its tail assembly as it flew over a La Jolla beach. Residents reported finding pieces of a plane along the beach but believed it was debris from a plane crash. No one was injured.

- March 6, 1981: An 8-foot-long torpedo-shaped tracking device fell from an F-4 and landed in a field about four miles from the air station. The fluorescent orange device, valued at $115,000 and weighing 120 pounds, carried no explosives.

With about 225,000 takeoffs and landings each year, Miramar is the Navy’s busiest master jet air station in the world. But because 60% of Miramar’s flight operations remain in air space above the base, Navy officials say that TFOA is not a serious problem for residents living in the nearby San Diego communities of La Jolla, Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta, Rancho Bernardo and Poway.

Only about one-fourth of the remaining flights pass over parts of those communities, said Roy Johnson, the Navy’s deputy community planning liaison at Miramar.

“I think it’s safe to surmise that most of the things that are going to come off an airplane take place during high speed, high stress maneuvers over El Centro, Yuma and other areas designated for bombing where there is no population,” Morford said.


But such statements do not reassure all civilians in San Diego County.

The management at the Hotel del Coronado, for example, has attempted for several years to persuade Navy officials to move the runway at North Island so that flights would pass over the ocean and not the hotel. The hotel is next to the Coronado Shores condominium complex, where the helicopter door landed in a swimming pool.

Besides the possibility of falling jet parts, the hotel management is concerned about a Navy plane plunging into the side of its historic buildings. The hotel also must replace its patio furniture annually because of stains from fuel that spews from planes as they pass overhead, said Scott Anderson, the hotel’s general manager.

Anderson said when large Navy planes fly over the hotel, it looks like “they are going to plow into the building. Frankly, it scares our customers.”

The Navy has refused to construct a new air strip, citing the $45-million cost. The hotel management argues that the figure is not that expensive, considering it is the equivalent of the cost of two F-14 jets.

“We’re very concerned about it,” Anderson said. “Our contention is whatever that cost is is less than the disaster of a plane going into the ballroom tower.”

The Navy first became concerned about falling parts in 1981 when CH-46 helicopters kept losing windows, said Kenton, the Navy’s aircraft programs and engineering officer at North Island.


By documenting such problems through stricter reporting requirements, Navy officials discovered it was easier to justify changes in the manufacturing process and revisions in maintenance manuals for the CH-46. They also found that they replaced fewer parts on the helicopter by diagnosing the problem earlier.

The success of the program led the Navy to consider implementing a similar reporting procedure for all Navy aircraft. In May, 1985, the chief of naval operations assigned the Naval Air Systems Command to establish a permanent program to combat the growing problem of falling parts.

“We don’t want things falling off aircraft from a safety perspective, both for people on the ground and pilots in airplanes,” Kenton said. “That’s how the program evolved. . . . There wasn’t a single incident. It was a recognition on the Navy’s part that we have a problem here, and we need to do something before something like that happens.”

Based on TFOA reports filed in the last year, Navy officials have found the most common parts lost are inspection panels made of aluminum sheet metal such as gas cap covers. Kenton said that when inspection crews flip the panel hundreds of times it has the same effect as bending a paper clip back and forth.

“Fiberglass paraphernalia are probably among the biggest offenders,” Morford said. “In some areas, our fiberglass technology hasn’t kept up with the speeds and the forces of some of the high performance of airplanes, and they tend to get brittle.”

Some panels are left open for the pilot to check gauges before jumping into his aircraft. Morford said he has seen cases where pilots forgot to fasten panels and the parts came off after takeoff.


Barring a loud noise or vibration, most lost parts are not discovered until the post-flight inspection, Morford said.

Morford said that missiles rarely fall off aircraft, but they do on occasion. Such accidents are usually caused by pilot error, he said.

Last year, two pilots bumped their F-14 fighters and knocked a $500,000 Phoenix missile into the Pacific as they were taking close-up photographs of the aircraft for their scrapbooks.

In 1978, six jets from the aircraft carrier Ranger mistakenly dropped eight tons of live bombs on an area about 2 1/2 miles north of the desert community of Wonder Valley near Twentynine Palms. A man who had been target shooting in the area with his 8-year-old son fled in a pickup as the bombs exploded.

A civilian ship sailing 50 miles off the Los Angeles coast was inadvertently attacked in 1980 when it was struck by a 25-pound practice bomb. None of the 18 people aboard ship was injured. The pilot of an A-7 Corsair jet stationed at Lemoore Naval Air Station missed his intended target by six miles.

An essential part of reducing TFOA incidents lies in an awareness program to remind pilots and inspection crews to look for loose parts before and after flights, Morford said.


“Everybody that flies an airplane knows to look a little bit closer and little bit harder at this problem area,” Morford said.