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Landing by sight, low altitude blamed for F-16 jet crash near Bagram

August 27, 2013 (by Cid Standifer) - An F-16C pilot killed in an April crash near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan was flying low and didn’t see the mountains in his flight path because of bad weather, according to a recently completed investigation.

Capt. James Steel, 77th FS pilot, stands in front of F-16C block #91-0368 in Afghanistan after a combat mission on November 12th, 2012. Capt. Steel was killed on April 3rd, 2013 after his aircraft crashed returning to base from a CAS mission. [USAF photo by Lt. Col. Tad Clark]

Capt. James Steel, 29, was navigating by sight, instead of using his instruments to navigate, according to the report, which was released Tuesday. Steel was killed because of his “failure to perceive mountainous terrain in his flight path,” according to a news release from Air Combat Command. The pilot made no attempt to eject from his plane before crashing into a mountainside 10 nautical miles southeast of Bagram Air Field, the release said.

At the time, Steel was in the lead plane of two F-16s supporting ground forces on a night combat mission.

Around 11 p.m., the two planes were returning to Bagram Air Field. Before he crashed, Steel asked the air tower for permission to land by sight. Controllers in Kabul approved.

When the plane came in for a landing at Bagram, his wingman at first assumed Steel was relying on his instruments. By the time he realized Steel was going by sight, the wingman couldn’t reach him on the radio. Steel lost contact with both the control tower and his wingman before crashing, the investigation found.

The report blames the choice to land by sight, as well as the low altitude at which Steel was flying, for the crash.

According to the investigation, the weather was bad enough that Steel should have relied on his plane’s sensors rather than his eyes. The control tower said there was light rain and a scattered cloud cover, and the wingman saw lightning in front of Steel’s plane as it approached.

Steel had only flown one prior mission in or out of Bagram, the report says.

“The [pilot] was an outstanding young officer and well-respected fighter pilot,” the report said. “He had many friends in the squadron and was enthusiastic about flying the F-16.”

“Controlled flight into terrain,” or incidents where a pilot unintentionally flies a functioning aircraft into the ground or an obstacle, is a surprisingly common cause of both civilian and military plane crashes. According to military data, Air Force accidents of that nature claimed 190 lives and $1.7 billion worth of aircraft between 1987 and 1996.

Most such accidents occur while the plane is landing, and almost always when weather makes for poor visibility, according to a 1999 study by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The same paper found that 70 percent of the Air Force planes in such accidents are fighter jets, and half of them involve “situational awareness components” where the pilot loses mental track of his location.

According to a December 2012 article from Defense News, the Air Force plans to put Ground Collision Avoidance System technology on F-16s in spring 2014. The device is designed to compute whether a jet’s flight path takes it toward the ground. If the GCAS detects danger, the autopilot kicks in to direct the plane out of harm’s way.

The crash investigation report says Steel’s plane had a low altitude warning that sounded before he crashed. However, his Predictive Ground Collision Avoidance System couldn’t warn him about the mountain because it wasn’t connected to the digital terrain database. Steel started to pull up when the PGCAS emitted an altitude warning, but not enough to avoid the mountain.

“The mishap did not cause civilian injuries or damage civilian property,” the news release said. “However, the aircraft and on-board munitions were destroyed upon impact with a loss valued at approximately $30.9 million.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force has yet to release its findings into what caused an F-16 Fighting Falcon from Aviano Air Base to crash off the coast of Italy in late January. The body of the jet’s pilot, Maj. Lucas Gruenther, was found Jan. 31, three days after he and his F-16 went missing during a night training flight over the Adriatic Sea. Air Force officials have said they expect to release the crash’s investigation report in mid-September.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.

Published on August 27th, 2013 in the Stars and Stripes.
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes, a DoD publication.
© 2013 Stars and Stripes.

Additional images:

Capt. James Steel, 29, from the 77th FS [USAF photo]