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Air Force’s aging fleet keeps flying as high costs delay replacements


While the U.S. Air Force relies planes that are decades old, a robust and costly maintenance regime keeps them all in the air. Everything from fighters and bombers to aerial refueling tankers dates in some cases to the Vietnam War or even earlier. And planes like the F-15 fighter, made to have a useful life of 5,000 flight hours when it went into service in Vietnam, now routinely reach 18,000 flight hours. Major overhauls that include replacing wings and other large components help explain why so many aircraft can keep flying for the Air Force all over the world. Meanwhile, replacement aircraft programs have routinely hit cost overruns and production delays in the last 20 years. The replacement for the KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, many of which started flying 60 years ago, may not come online for five more years. The F-22 and F-35 fighters, which would replace aging F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, are billions over budget, forcing the Pentagon to scale back its replacement plans. While some critics worry that the Air Force’s aging fleet is its Achilles Heel, many others note that rigorous maintenance is keeping the fleet safely in the sky.