On the eve of its annual winter get-together in Orlando, the US Air Force has finally cleared all of its much-grounded, much-inspected, much-speculated-about F-15s to return to flight. All bar the nine out of some 440 A- to D-model Eagles found to have the same longeron cracks that caused an F-15 to break up in flight in early November.
The USAF argues it was justified on safety grounds in keeping the Eagles grounded for so long, although it has finally released even those with suspect longerons for flight without repair, without restrictions and with only the requirement for recurrent checks every 400h (provided they pass one last inspection).
Safety is essential, and the USAF has lost three F-15s since they began returning to flight in January - two on 19 February when they collided over the Gulf of Mexico - none of them to structural failure. But it's hard to shake the belief the Air Force stretched this grounding out to make a point about its aging fleet, and its need for more F-22s to replace the F-15s.
On that very subject, the USAF has been forced to disavow the recent comments of a senior officer who said what many believe to be true - that the Air Force will get its 380 Raptors by hook or by crook. "The Air Force wholeheartedly supports the President's budget request for the F-22 program," the statement says.
Well no surprise there, because what that budget request does is not close the F-22 line, so leaving the decision on whether to buy more to Congress and the next Administration. But the statement also says: "The Air Force and the DoD share the same desired end state." Well the DoD's idea of an end state seems clear - 187 Raptors.