SYDNEY, Australia – Australia grounded its 26 U.S.-made F-111 fighter jets Tuesday, hours after one of the air force planes was forced to make an emergency landing because a wheel fell off after takeoff, officials said.
Live television images showed the F-111 on a long, low approach before it finally touched down at the Royal Australian Air Force's Amberly base near Brisbane. A steel cable stretched across the runway helped slow the plane as it slid down the runway on its undercarriage, sending off showers of bright sparks and heavy plumes of smoke as it ground to a halt.
Two crew members jumped from the plane and ran to safety as emergency crews moved in and began spraying the plane with flame-retardant foam.
Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said the grounding was necessary to ensure there was nothing structurally wrong with the planes.
Air Marshall Geoff Shepherd said the left-wing wheel of the fighter fell off shortly after takeoff as the landing gear was being retracted, an event that has never occurred in the 30-year flying history of the planes.
While giving a pep talk to Australian troops during a daylong visit to East Timor, Prime Minister John Howard expressed relief and praised the two pilots for safely bringing the fighter jet down "with no scratches, a few sparks and some sensational footage for the TV networks."
"We're all relieved that that has happened and we're all very, very proud of the professionalism and the skills of the pilots of the Royal Australian Air Force," he told the troops.
Australia's air force has lost 10 crewmen in eight F-111 crashes since taking deliveries of the first models in June 1973. The aircraft are scheduled to be retired in four years.