Controversy brews again over Canada's Starfighter planes

The Starfighter has presented Canada with a distasteful dilemma: to continue flying the high-speed planes, almost half of which have crashed, or to go without.

To the Department of National Defense, the choice is clear: The 83 remaining CF-104 Starfighters will stay in use. The Starfighter is the only fighter aircraft Canada has in Europe. (Its domestic fleet includes 95 CF-5 Freedom Fighters and 53 CF-101 Voodoo Interceptors.)

The Starfighter will eventually be replaced by the CF-18 Hornet. Canada has ordered 138 of the US-built aircraft to replace its aging fighter fleet of Starfighters and Voodoos.

''The CF-18 will be phased in and all squadrons will be flying them by 1986, '' said a spokesman for the Department of National Defense in Ottawa. The Canadian Armed Forces (there is no air force as such in Canada; all three services are grouped together) have received 10 of the new planes.

Political controversy over the Starfighter heightened after one crashed while flying low in formation over an air show near the United States Air Force base outside Frankfurt, West Germany, killing five members of a German family. The pilot ejected safely from the plane.

It was the 110th Canadian Starfighter to crash out of an original fleet of 239 planes.

Now opposition Conservatives in the House of Commons have asked the government to ground the Starfighter. Although the plane is not to be flown in any more air shows, Defense Minister Gilles Lamontagne turned down requests to ground it entirely. A bomber pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, he said if he thought the planes were unsafe, he would ground them immediately.

One reason for the poor safety record of the Starfighter is that it was designed as a high-altitude interceptor. It is still a fast plane, able to fly at twice the speed of sound. But it has been adapted as a ground-support plane. Its stubby wings make it hard to control at low altitudes. Many crashes have occurred when birds have gotten in a plane's single engine.

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