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Poor maintenance led to Aviano F-16s fuel tank drop

October 6, 2009 (by Kent Harris) - Faulty maintenance work is being blamed for a March incident in which an F-16 pilot was forced to drop his fuel tanks over a small northern Italy town before making an emergency landing on base.

USAF F-16C block 40 #89-2102 from the 510th FS is seen returning to Aviano AB after suffering an in-flight emergency in which the pilot had to eject its external fuel tanks on March 24th, 2009. Note the white smoke trailing from the engine. [Photo by Marco Sommacal]

The jet's engine failed because of a "massive fuel leak at the connection between the fuel/oil cooler fuel discharge outlet and the main fuel tube," according to an executive summary of the accident investigation board's findings, which was released Monday by U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

"The seal at this connection failed because technical orders regarding this connection were not properly followed by the engine maintenance personnel who performed and verified the maintenance."

No one was injured in the March 24 incident. The pilot — who is not named in the summary — managed to land the aircraft safely on base after dropping the fuel tanks.

The summary didn't mention any potential disciplinary action taken against individuals for the faulty maintenance work. Questions to the 31st Fighter Wing regarding the incident were not answered by deadline Monday afternoon.

Col. David B. Coomer, commander of the 31st Maintenance Group at the time of the incident, is no longer assigned to Aviano.

USAFE did not release the investigation board's full report.

USAFE commander Gen. Roger A. Brady appointed the board, which was headed by Col. John J. Hokaj, assigned to 3rd Air Force at Ramstein. Board members generally include experts from a variety of fields, such as pilots and maintenance personnel, officials said.

The report said that the pilot followed proper procedures and dropped the tanks in what he thought was a relatively unpopulated area.

The tanks landed near the community of Tamai di Brugnera, about a dozen miles southwest of the base. One of the tanks plunged through the roof of a garage and hit a vehicle parked inside, according to initial Italian media reports of the incident. The other eventually came to rest near an area where a young girl was playing, the reports said.

The loss of the tanks meant that the pilot was essentially left to glide his aircraft to the base. The report said the landing was successful and "damage was confined to the engine and its components."

The outcome could have been far worse if not for the pilot's actions, said Lt. Col. Dave Honchul, chief of public affairs for 3rd Air Force.

"If he had not dropped the tanks, he would not have made it back to Aviano," he said in a telephone interview Monday.

Published on October 6th, 2009 in the European edition of Stars and Stripes.
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes, a DoD publication.
© 2009 Stars and Stripes.

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