As details emerge on how a Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter crashed into an apartment building in Virginia Beach on Friday, the incident has once again put the service's aging fighter fleet back in the spotlight.
The Hornet, attached to the Navy's 106th Strike Fighter Squadron out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, crashed into the apartment building shortly after takeoff.
Four other individuals were transported to local hospitals for injuries, according to local news reports, and all all residents had been accounted for early Saturday.
Before ejecting, the Hornet crew was reportedly able to dump the plane's fuel reserves before impact.
The fuel dump likely prevented a large degree of additional damage to the apartment complex and surrounding area.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee, and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) are working with the Navy and DoD to gain more insight into the crash.
Both lawmakers' offices "stand ready to do everything we can to help our neighbors in Virginia Beach,” Forbes said in a statement issued Friday.
As Navy officials begin to piece together the circumstances surrounding the crash, one factor investigators will likely look into is the fighter's age.
The plane was an older D model, which first went into service in the late 1980s.
Those fighters, along with the newer E and F models known as Super Hornets, have borne the brunt of air support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade.
The E and F versions of the Navy and Marine Corps fighter jet entered service in the late 1990's.
Initially, the planes were only built to last for an estimated total of 6,000 flight-hours before being retired from the flight line.
But the numerous combat rotations to the Middle East and elsewhere, coupled with the training missions those planes fly when not deployed, have taken their toll.
The Hornet that crashed in Virginia Beach on Friday was flying a training mission out of the Oceana naval air base.
Service leaders already have a plan in place, known as a Service Life Extension Program, to stretch the lifespan of the old C and D model Hornets from 6,000 hours to 9,000 hours.
Marine Corps fighter squadrons rotating back from Afghanistan claim their Hornets are coming dangerously close to that 9,000 flight-hour ceiling.
Service officials claim that no Hornet or Super Hornet in the fleet has breached that 9,000 flight-hour limit to date.
The Navy is asking Congress to approve a plan to buy more Super Hornets as part of their fiscal 2013 defense budget proposal.
Specifically, service leaders want lawmakers to sign off on a plan to "add a fifth production year" to the Navy's current multiyear contract for the Super Hornet.
Securing that additional year to the fighter contract could allow the Navy to retire some of its older Hornet aircraft that have served much longer than they were designed for.
However, the Navy will be forced to continue to fly aging versions of the F/A-18 until the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes online.
The Navy will fly a mix of newer Super Hornets and F-35s for their future air operations sometime in 2020, Boeing spokeswoman Karen Fincutter said on Saturday.
Boeing is the prime manufacturer of the Hornet and Super Hornet fighter.
The JSF was initially expected to enter the Navy and Marine Corps fleets by 2012, according service estimates.
But Navy and Marine Corps leaders had to push that estimated initial operational capability (IOC) date back to 2015, due to numerous schedule delays and cost increases in the F-35 program.
However, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said on Thursday that DoD has no firm date on when the F-35 will enter service.
"Rather than committing to a date, we are committing to the [development] process," Donley told reporters during a breakfast on Tuesday.
Continued development delays have forced the Pentagon and the services to constantly readjust the anticipated IOC date for the JSF, according to the service chief.
Program officials continue to work through engineering and development issues tied to those program delays.
Until those issues are resolved and the F-35 finally hits Marine Corps runways and Navy carrier decks, service officials will have to keep coming up with ways to keep the Hornet and Super Hornet in the sky.
--story was updated at 12:52am to include comments from a Boeing spokeswoman