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Spatial disorientation caused fatal F-16 crash in Gulf of Mexico

September 10, 2015 (by Lieven Dewitte) - An Air Force report says spatial disorientation caused a civilian pilot to fatally crash an F-16 last November in the Gulf of Mexico. A report by Air Combat Command at Langley AFB says LaCourse was intercepting another jet when he became disoriented. The maneuvers stimulated fluid in the pilot's inner ear canals that affect perceptions of gravity, movement and direction.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew J. LaCourse (58) crashed his F-16C into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He did not eject and he did not survive the impact.

Matthew J. LaCourse (58) graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1978 and retired from the Air Force in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel. In 2006, he took a job as a contractor with the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, where he previously served before his retirement. The squadron is a mix of highly experienced civilian and military personnel.

According to the crash investigation documents, LaCourse and another pilot were practicing an one-on-one intercept in which LaCourse was flying his F-16 while another pilot was acting as a simulated drone.

LaCourse’s objective was to do a head-on intercept with the drone by approaching from the opposite direction, passing it, and then changing direction and coming up from behind on the drone’s flight path.

LaCourse missed the intercept and made a left hand turn setting up for another head on intercept with the drone.

This time LaCourse made visual contact with the drone and passed it. Upon passing LaCourse made a “pitchback” left hand turn. During the turn LaCourse overshot the drone once more and looked back over his left shoulder to reacquire the target.

LaCourse was inverted for 10 seconds and had approximately 4-4.5G applied to his body. He stabilized after the turn with his aircraft’s nose pointing downwards, and when he was approximately 1,500ft above the water he pulled his aircraft to “wings level” and throttled up in an apparent attempt to gain altitude. It was too late. LaCourse made no attempt to eject and crashed into the water at 08:34h on Nov. 6, 2014.

According to the report the pilot did not go through the proper training to begin flying the jets again after a nearly 20-year hiatus.

LaCourse became a civil service pilot for the squadron in 2010 and flew a wide variety of aircraft for the Air Force but he hadn't flown the F-16 since 1994 when he was recertified to fly it in 2014.

Of the nearly 102 hours LaCourse had spent flying an F-16 in his career, 82 of those came before 1994. He spent less than nine hours flying the F-16 during seven different flights in the 90 days prior to the crash, the report says.

The report says LaCourse should have been required to attend F-16 centrifuge retraining before he was qualified to fly the jet again. That didn't happen, the report says, because his squadron's leadership misapplied Air Force guidance, inappropriately giving him credit for flying the F-4 Phantom. In 2012, Tyndall celebrated LaCourse reaching 2,000 flight hours on the F-4, a rare milestone.

"For this reason, the (pilot) was not current or qualified in the F-16," the report says.

During a senior officer course to transition to flying the F-16 the summer before the crash, the squadron's leaders also rated LaCourse's flight performance as "slightly below average."

The maneuvers LaCourse performed during the training mission caused him to incorrectly perceive the angle of his bank and his general position, leaving him disoriented, the Air Force says. The report says LaCourse was nearly incapacitated and notes he didn't attempt any maneuvers during one 10-second period. He also lost sight of the other jet, which contributed to the crash, the report said.

The pilot was in fair health at the time of the crash with no conditions or illnesses that would limit his performance, the report said.

“I find by clear and convincing evidence that the cause of mishap was spatial disorientation experienced by the [pilot] during a low to high intercept conversion, resulting in a roll and rapid descent causing impact into the Gulf of Mexico,” wrote Air Force Brig. Gen. Christopher Short, President of the Accident Investigation Board in the report.

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