Fighter Jet News

F-16 Fighting Falcon News

Thunderbird accident report released

January 22, 2004 (by jetech) - A pilot's error caused a Thunderbirds F-16C to crash shortly after takeoff during a September airshow at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

Thunderbird no. 6 ejection at Mt. Home airshow in 2003 [Photo by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III - Still Photographer, USAF]

On Wednesday the 21st, the Air Force Accident Investigation Board held a news conference at the home of the Thunderbirds - Nellis Air Force Base - to announce what caused an F16 to crash last September.

According to the accident investigation board report the pilot, 31-year-old Captain Chris Stricklin, misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the "Split S" maneuver. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S maneuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground - just 0.8 seconds prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

The difference in altitudes at Nellis and Mountain Home may have contributed to the pilot's error. The airfield at Nellis is at 2,000 feet whereas the one at Mountain Home is at 3,000 feet. It appears that the pilot reverted back to his Nellis habit pattern for s aplit second. Thunderbird commander Lt. Col. Richard McSpadden said Stricklin had performed the stunt around 200 times, at different altitudes during his year as a Thunderbird pilot.

McSpadden says Stricklin is an exceptional officer. "He is an extremely talented pilot. He came in here and made an honest mistake," says Lt. Col. McSpadden. But that mistake has cost Stricklin his prestigious spot on the Thunderbird team. "He's assigned to Washington D.C.," says McSpadden. "He's working in the Pentagon there in one of the agencies."

The maneuver the pilot was trying to complete is called the "Split S Maneuver." The stunt requires that the pilot climb to 2,500 feet. Investigators say Stricklin only climbed to 1,670 feet before he went into the spinning roll.

The board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement to convert sea level altitude information from the F-16 instruments - to their altitude above ground and call out that information to a safety operator below.

But the Air Force has now changed that as a result of the crash. Thunderbird pilots will now call out the MSL (mean-sea-level) altitudes as opposed to the AGL (above-ground-level) altitudes.

Thunderbird pilots will now also climb an extra 1000 feet before performing the Split S Maneuver to prevent another mistake like the one on Sep.14, 2003 from happening again.

Captain Chris Stricklin has been in the Air Force since 1994 and flew with the Thunderbirds for the first season now. He has logged a total of 1,500+ flight hours and has received numerous awards. He served as a flight examiner, flight instructor and flight commander.

The Thunderbirds will again take to the skies this year. They have 65 air shows scheduled.

The September crash was the second involving a Thunderbirds jet since the team began using F-16s in 1983.

Pilot error was blamed for a Feb. 14, 1994, training crash involving in a maneuver called a spiral descent at the Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield, northwest of Las Vegas. The pilot survived, but the maneuver was discontinued.

The worst crash in Thunderbird history, dubbed the "Diamond Crash," came when four pilots crashed Jan. 18, 1982, during training at Indian Springs. A malfunction in the lead plane was blamed.

See also the Forum discussions: Thunderbird crash accident report released, Thunderbird crash 14 Sep 2003 and Thunderbird crash photo (head-on).