Crash jet `was testing stealth technology'

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The Independent Online
The Tornado F3 fighter which crashed just yards from Blackpool's South Pier at the weekend may have been involved in top secret testing of stealth technology for the next generation of RAF planes.

The two crewmen were yesterday recovering amid growing concern about the Tornados' safety record.

The plane plunged into shallow water at low tide at about 3.45pm on Saturday. British Aerospace refused to give the names of the pilot and navigator, who ejected moments before the crash, or to allow them to give interviews. The navigator had facial injuries and was released from hospital yesterday, while the the pilot suffered minor back injuries, the usual injuries associated with ejecting from a jet.

The Ministry of Defence and BAe, which was carrying out what was described as "some form of servicing" or "routine testing", said the details of the crash and the circumstances in which it took place could not be disclosed until the MoD's findings were published.

However, The Independent understands the aircraft was at the end of its sortie and returning from the south-west to BAe's airfield at Warton, Lancashire, but turned out to sea shortly before crashing. Last night large parts of the wreckage had been removed to Warton.

BAe and the MoD yesterday refused to say what the aircraft was doing or why, unusually, it was flying on a Saturday.

Earlier this year there was a proposal to phase out the F3s and replace them with F16 fighters leased from the United States until the new Eurofighter enters service in 2001.

But this plan was rejected in favour of upgrading the F3s with Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (Amraam) and a target information system called JTIDS. It is possible the aircraft was being tested after these modifications.

However, BAe are also engaged in classified studies into the replacement for the GR1 Tornado bomber. This includes studies called Halo - High Agility, Low Observation - in other words, stealth technology, and it is known that Tornados are being used to test stealth techniques, including radar- absorbent coatings.

"The fact these guys were flying on a Saturday, though not unheard of, is unusual," said Nick Cook, aviation editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "This suggests they might have been doing something a little covert."

In all, 22 Tornados have crashed since 1990, seven of them the F3 fighter variant. However, the Tornado lost on Saturday was the first to crash in the hands of BAe, which built it as part of a British-German-Italian consortium, for 20 years. The aircraft was originally designed as a bomber, and later adapted to be an air-to-air fighter, with limited success.

The F3 fighter entered service with the RAF in 1984. The GR1 bomber version was used in dare-devil low-level attacks on Iraqi airfields during the 1991 Gulf war. The F3 has a different role, designed to fly high over the North Sea and pick off incoming Russian bombers with its medium range air-to-air missiles. It is not an "agile fighter", and in the Gulf war F3s were held back from the front line over Iraq.

Although the losses of Tornado bombers in the Gulf war were criticised, the RAF had a higher rate of loss earlier this year through training accidents. Two F3 fighters and a GR1 bomber were lost in January this year, and another GR1 in February. The jet which crashed on Saturday was the 13th British combat aircraft to be lost this year. Although senior RAF officers maintain the losses are just bad luck, privately RAF pilots admit the aircraft are getting old.