December 18, 2004 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Air Force says pilot error and a poorly designed aircraft interface caused the F16 pilot to accidentally fire rounds into a New Jersey elementary school.
A report from the Accident Investigations Board calls the firing of the aircraft's gun an "unfortunate and unintentional mistake" and says the pilot never intended for it to happen.
The pilot, identified as Maj. Roberto Balzano, of the 113th Wing based at Andrews Air Force Base, accidentally fired 27 rounds at Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School
during a nightly training exercise last month. There were no injuries but the 2-inch rounds punched holes in the school's roof and ceiling tiles, tore the carpet and made indentations in the asphalt parking lot.
The report says the pilot was trying to verify his position in relation to a target on the range, which is done by pulling a trigger to emit a laser marker. However, the F-16 flight control stick has a two-detent trigger. If the pilot squeezes the trigger on the first detent the aircraft indeed emits a laser. However, if the pilot fully squeezes the trigger while the aircraft is in master arm and the gun mode is selected, as was the case here, the gun will discharge.
Although the targetting pod underneath the F-16 is capable of rotating its seeker head to pointing at the target independent of the aircraft's flight path, the gun can only fire directly ahead of it. At the time the trigger was pulled, the F-16 was notheaded towards the intended strafing target.
The report also disclosed that there have been three other incidents this year in which an F-16 pilot unintentionally fired during nighttime strafing missions. It did not say where and when the other incidents occurred, but the report noted that, like the New Jersey case, no one was hurt.
The report concluded the Nov. 3 New Jersey incident an "unfortunate and unintentional mistake." It said the pilot never intended to strafe the Little Egg Harbor Township Intermediate School and suggested computer software changes to the aircraft control systems to prevent another incident.
Major Balzano has more than 2,000 hours of experience flying planes, 975 hours of which were in the F-16s.
He was on a nighttime training sortie conducting basic surface attacks at the range. A briefing session was held before the mission and Balzano was cautioned not to use his laser marker with the air-to-ground gun mode selected and the gun armed, the report said.
Balzano immediately realized his error when the aircraft gun's discharged. He told the control tower something had gone wrong, scrapped his mission and returned to Andrews AFB
The range reopened Thursday. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., had called for the range to be closed until the investigation was completed, and officials shut it down.