Air-Minded: Waiting Until the Facts Are In (Updated 11/24/20)

USAF accident reports on two of the fatal crashes discussed in this post have been released. Scroll to the end for links and a personal comment. — Paul


“Praise undeserved, is satire in disguise.”
— Alexander Pope

Just over two months ago, a pilot assigned to the US Air Force F-15 wing at RAF Lakenheath died when he crashed into the North Sea. The crash was, by USAF definition, a Class A mishap: total loss of an aircraft, more than $2 million in damage to an aircraft, death or permanent disabling of the pilot or crew.

The USAF conducts two investigations of every Class A: a mishap investigation and an accident investigation. Mishap investigations focus on safety: determining what happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. Mishap investigation findings and recommendations are internal and not released to the public. Accident investigations are conducted for legal purposes to determine fault and liability; the conclusions are public record. When details about USAF crashes appear in the news, they are from the accident investigations. In this case, both investigations are still ongoing. Nothing’s been released about what may have caused the crash.

I myself have heard nothing about the Lakenheath Class A, not even unofficial scuttlebutt. But I was in the business for 24 years, and do know some things. One is that well over 90% of Class A mishaps are the result of pilot error. I’m trying to think of a scenario where an F-15 pilot would find him- or herself in a situation where impact with the ground or water is inevitable (catastrophic airframe failure, loss of both engines, going into an unrecoverable spin, etc) and not be able to eject in time. Tell you what, it’s a stretch to imagine one.

What do Lakenheath F-15 pilots do out over the North Sea? The same thing I did over the North Sea when I flew F-15s at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands: train for air-to-air combat. They intercept other F-15s or dissimilar aircraft, practice targeting and shooting missiles at long range, then close to visual range and practice maneuvering for the kill … dogfighting, if you prefer.

I can’t recall if the “floor” for dogfighting is 5,000 or 10,000 feet above the terrain or water, but either way the idea is that if you get in trouble you’ll have enough altitude below you to safely eject. When fighter pilots fly into the ground or water without ejecting, mishap investigations usually determine they either became incapacitated from G-induced loss of consciousness, were disoriented and unaware of their altitude, had been doing unauthorized dogfighting below minimum safe altitude, or had put their jets out of control and delayed ejecting until it was too late.

I don’t claim to know why the Lakenheath F-15 pilot crashed into the North Sea without attempting to eject, but it’s almost a sure thing the mishap’s on him.

In my experience, the USAF closes ranks and clams up in the wake of such mishaps. The pilot’s friends and squadron mates want, of course, to believe it wasn’t his or her fault, but commanders and supervisors discourage speculation and tell everyone not to make judgments or conclusions until the mishap board results come out. You give what comfort, help, and encouragement you can to the surviving spouse, who’s never around long after the mishap. You rarely (until now I would have said never) see open public adulation of a lost comrade. Not while the investigation’s still going on, anyway.

But that’s what happened here. Praise of the dead pilot appeared in both civilian and military media, including a full-page tribute in the Air Force Times, written by his wife. His remains were given a hero’s homecoming and burial in his home town in Utah, and his funeral service was live-streamed to an international audience. His name has been stenciled on the cockpit of a Lakenheath F-15. All this while mishap and accident board investigators are still determining the facts; all this before any investigation results have been announced.

This is a new thing. Shockingly new to me at least, but I suspect also to military aviators in general. Well, I hope the investigations discover some heretofore unknown F-15 catastrophic failure mode and determine the pilot’s decision not to eject was motivated by heroism (like maybe he worried his jet would hit a North Sea oil rig and stayed at the controls to steer it away), but I don’t think it’s likely.

Things were different in my day (oh boy, here we go). Just one example: when I flew with the 43rd TFS in Alaska, one of my squadron mates put an F-15 out of control in a training area west of Anchorage. He ejected, survived, and was picked up by an Elmendorf rescue helicopter a couple of hours later. He was a popular guy in the unit and we were happy he ejected safely. Those of us who weren’t on the flying schedule went out to the flight line to meet the helicopter and welcome him home. This angered our commander and he let us know about it when we returned to the squadron. His reasoning? There was nothing praiseworthy about putting a multi-million dollar airplane out of control and losing it. If you were that pilot, you were automatically under a cloud.

I could write a long list of pilots I knew who died in crashes, each and every one of whom was subsequently determined to have fucked up. None of them got anything remotely like the treatment the Lakenheath lieutenant got; no photospreads in the Air Force Times; no “in memorium” stencils on unit aircraft. And their spouses? Forgotten and whisked away almost overnight; certainly not featured in full-page spreads in the Air Force Times.

This article summarizes the six USAF Class A mishaps that occurred in the months of May and June, 2020 (mishap and accident investigations of each incident are ongoing and no findings or recommendations have been released):

1) May 2: an Oregon ANG F-15C skidded off the runway during an unplanned emergency landing at Joint Base Andrews MD. The pilot egressed unharmed (click here if you’re interested in knowing more).

2) May 15: an Eglin AFB FL F-22 Raptor crashed in the Gulf of Mexico after the pilot safely ejected.

3) May 19: an Eglin AFB F-35A Lightning II crashed on landing. The pilot safely ejected on the ground.

4) June 8: the landing gear of an F-35A Lightning II collapsed on landing at Hill AFB UT. The pilot egressed unharmed.

5) June 8: a C-130 Hercules overshot the runway at Camp Taji Airbase in Iraq, crashed into a wall and burst into flames, injuring four US service members.

6) June 15: the Lakenheath F-15C mishap that prompted this post, the only fatal crash in this string of mishaps.

But wait, there’s a late addition:

7) June 31: a Shaw AFB SC F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed during a night training mission. The pilot died on impact.

The Shaw F-16 pilot appears to be on the same postmortem publicity arc as his Lakenheath F-15 predecessor. Initial reports include praise (“one of our very best,” “received his pilot’s license when he was 17,” “graduated at the top of his class in pilot training”). His wife has been interviewed by the local paper. A memorial scholarship fund has been set up in his name. No word yet on whether there’ll be an “in memorium” Viper on the ramp at Shaw, but hey, the precedent’s been set.

These two men had to be good pilots to get assigned to F-15s and F-16s. They were my brothers in arms. Their squadron mates and friends should remember them. My intention here is not to seem small, but I understand where my old squadron commander in Alaska was coming from: hold off on the praise until after the investigation boards finish their work. If the boards determine pilot or aircrew error, study what they did wrong, and why, and don’t make the same mistakes. That’s where their memory will do some practical good.

Update (11/24/20):

USAF accident reports on the fatal Lakenheath F-15 and Shaw F-16 Class A mishaps have been released. As I suspected, each was caused by pilot error; a series of increasingly egregious ones in the Shaw F-16 crash, and in the case of Lakenheath F-15 pilot, a chilling reminder of the time I came close to meeting a similar end.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Air-Minded: Waiting Until the Facts Are In (Updated 11/24/20)

  • Work in Egress for 36years, in AirForce & AirForce Reserves , went to many Egress Conference, one thing was noted, that Israel Airforce would give award to pilot ejecting awards. and not look down on.

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