Air-Minded: a Catastrophic Breakdown

In an Air-Minded post dated August 16, 2020, I mentioned a fatal F-16 mishap at Shaw AFB, South Carolina that had happened during a night landing a month and a half earlier. As with other mishaps I take an interest in, I kept an eye out for subsequent reporting. Turns out this one was a horror show from start to finish.

F-16 Class A Shaw AFB 30 Jun 20

The mishap pilot (MP) was a young lieutenant who’d only recently graduated from pilot training and had less than 100 hours in the Viper at the time of his death. He’d gone out on a night sortie, flying as number four in a four-ship. The mission was to include night air-to-air refueling (AAR), suppression of enemy air defense tactics in a military working area, and night landings back at Shaw.

After takeoff, en route to the military working area, the flight rejoined on a KC-135 tanker to top off their tanks, but the MP couldn’t connect to the boom. Since the MP couldn’t fly the scheduled suppression of enemy defense mission for lack of fuel, his mission element lead (MEL) led him back to Shaw AFB, where they flew separate straight-in instrument approaches. During the MP’s first landing attempt, he misinterpreted the approach lights and struck a localizer antenna short of the runway, severely damaging the left main landing gear. The MP initiated a go-around but briefly touched down in the underrun at the approach end of the runway.

Once the MP was airborne again, his MEL (who had wisely decided to stay airborne in the pattern until the MP was safely on the ground) rejoined with him to visually assess the damage. For the next 20 minutes, the MP and MEL flew around the pattern while discussing options with the supervisor of flying (SOF), an experienced F-16 pilot on duty in the tower. Eventually the SOF and MEL decided the best option was for the MP to attempt another landing, this time with the hook down to engage the approach end cable. They discussed the option of ejecting without attempting to land, but decided against it.

On the MP’s second landing attempt, at approximately 11 PM (and without his landing light, which had been torn off during the first attempt), the tailhook failed to snag the cable. The left main gear, hanging loose with the wheel and tire sideways to the direction of flight, collapsed and the left wing began to dig into the runway. The MP pulled the handle but his ejection seat malfunctioned. Still strapped to it, he was killed instantly when the seat struck the ground.

Like I said, a hot mess all around. The proximate cause was the MP’s botched first landing attempt, which damaged the left main gear so severely the only safe option was a controlled ejection (every air base designates a nearby unpopulated area for just such occurrences). Another proximate cause was the MEL’s inaccurate assessment of the damage to the MP’s landing gear (remember, though, this all happened between 10:30 and 11:00 PM on a dark night); yet another was the SOF’s failure to initiate an emergency conference call with the F-16’s manufacturer. Had he done so, Lockheed-Martin engineers would have told him the approach end cable engagement procedure wasn’t safe with damaged landing gear and that the MP should eject rather than attempt to land.

But let’s go back to that night air-to-air refueling at the beginning of the mission. Here’s what the accident board president, a USAF major general, said in his concluding remarks:

I believe the MP was distracted and dwelling on his earlier unsuccessful AAR attempt, which may have contributed to misinterpreting runway visual cues. On the night of the mishap, the direct impact of the MP’s unsuccessful AAR was two aircraft returning home early, meaning the entire mission was ineffective for training purposes. The MP was a distinguished graduate from undergraduate pilot training and had a solid performance record. I believe he did his absolute best during his first ever AAR attempt, and was disappointed with his performance. The MP twice verbally expressed frustration with himself, as heard on the [mishap aircraft’s] cockpit voice recording. The first time was during his AAR attempt and again while descending for the final approach to Shaw AFB. In addition, the MEL made two supportive comments on the way back to Shaw AFB because he knew the MP was disappointed they were returning home early. The first was a lighthearted comment, “that was not the way to start your tanking experience,” followed by “that was really challenging.” The MP responded to these comments in a lighthearted tone by saying, “no excuse.” These comments were made eight minutes before damage to the [mishap aircraft] occurred, so the AAR failure was still in the forefront of the MP’s thoughts.

Yes, I bet he was flustered. The botched AAR was the first in a series of cascading errors that led to the MP’s death. Did you get the part about the “first ever AAR attempt”? I went back to read the accident report a second time, then looked up a report on the mishap as well. It’s true. The young lieutenant had never air refueled before. Not once.

Turns out the Air Education and Training Command training unit that taught him to fly the F-16 never filled that square. Tanker hours weren’t available, so they noted the lack of AAR training in his records and sent him on to his first operational Air Combat Command squadron at Shaw AFB, leaving it up to the gaining unit to teach him how.

Air-to-air refueling becomes second nature to most fighter pilots, but it takes a while to get there. It’s a hell of learning curve at first, and that’s in daylight, let alone at night all by yourself in a single-seat fighter. The general had a bit more to say about that:

AAR is a precision formation event that must be learned and practiced to gain and maintain proficiency. The [flight lead] and [element lead] were both experienced and proficient [instructor pilots], and only took a few minutes each to receive their planned offload of fuel. However, the [flight lead’s wingman, number two] was inexperienced, with this being only his second time to AAR and first time at night. The [flight lead’s wingman] took approximately ten minutes, had several bobbles that resulted in disconnecting from the tanker, and his experience ended after receiving less than the planned amount of fuel, but was able to continue the mission. The MP also took ten minutes, but was not able to stabilize [his aircraft] in relation to the tanker long enough to refuel before being forced to return to base. This was the MP’s first time trying to AAR and it was at night, complicating an already difficult task.

When I learned to fly the F-15 at Luke AFB in 1978, AAR was one of the final training requirements before graduation. You did your first AAR in a two-seater with an instructor pilot in the back, and you did it in daylight, never at night.

The first time you pull up under a tanker, many times the size of your little jet, looming overhead so close you can count the rivets, it’s intimidating. To say the least. Newbies get buck fever and over-control the throttles and stick as they try to get in position and connect with the boom. It’s almost always what Navy aviators call a FLAILEX. It usually takes a few tries, but eventually you settle down. And then the tanker rolls into a 30-degree bank while you’re on the boom, and you have to roll and turn with it! No wonder the light gray leather of your flight gloves turns black the first time you try it … you squeeze the juice out of the stick! And that’s in daylight, when it’s supposed to be easy!

This lieutenant didn’t die because some minor training requirement slipped through the cracks. He died because of a catastrophic breakdown in training, scheduling, and leadership. The squadron knew it was his first AAR, but they didn’t put him in a two-seater with an instructor in the back, and they never should have scheduled it at night, when it’s much harder to judge your position under the tanker. I don’t have access to current flying and training regs, but I’m pretty sure a bunch of them were violated when they planned and scheduled that mission. Add that to the SOF’s failure to initiate a conference call with Lockheed-Martin, and heads should have rolled over this mishap. I don’t know if they did, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

Some additional thoughts:

I read that the USAF’s new advanced trainer, the T-7 Red Hawk, will have AAR capability. Does this mean undergraduate pilot training students on the fighter/bomber track will get AAR training before getting their wings and going on to operational aircraft? Awesome if so, but it won’t start happening until 2024. Until then we’ll still be using the T-38, which can’t do air-to-air refueling.

F-15 and F-16 training units are equipped with both one- and two-seaters, the latter normally (always?) used for initial AAR training. Other fighters in the inventory, the A-10, F-22, and F-35, only come in one flavor — single seat — and yet second lieutenants are assigned to these aircraft right out of pilot training, which means their first AAR is conducted solo.

Solo or with an instructor in the back, I can’t imagine expecting someone who has never air-refueled before to be able to pull it off at night. Someone should have said “Stop!” before those four pilots ever stepped to their aircraft. I’m astounded this mishap ever happened. Training, scheduling, leadership … all three broke down in catastrophic fashion that night.



6 thoughts on “Air-Minded: a Catastrophic Breakdown

  • Curious about the 30-degree bank upon hook up. Is it to facilitate gravity feed of fuel?

  • Guess I could have worded that better. Tankers normally fly a racetrack pattern, with left turns at each end. Sometimes you have to get on the boom during a turn; sometimes the tanker initiates a turn after you’re on the boom. Either way, it’s a big deal the first couple of times it happens. The only good thing about night refueling is you don’t notice it so much!

  • Hi Paul.
    So, the tanker’s turns are basically unpredictable to a pilot, and the pattern is not briefed?

  • Here is a perspective from a former KC-135 Tanker driver. There are established air refuelling “tracks” established throughout the US and overseas. A track has a start & end point with an orbit area / holding pattern at one end where the tanker waits until the receiver(s) show up. Once the receivers / tanker join up, they proceed down to refuelling track.
    If any turns are required (weather, air traffic control, reaching the end of the track, etc.), they are accompliched with a standard maximum 30 degree bank. The key to this evolution is the tanker needs to be SMOOTH and consistent rolling in & out of any turn. No yanking & banking allowed! The receiver pilot is quite a ways behind you trying to fly formation on the tanker & stay inside a “box” in the sky behind the tanker to keep the boom connected & get the gas. Night & bad weather just complicate things but it can be done – with trainng and practice.
    The tanker generally flies on autopilot EXCEPT when in turbulence / lousy weather. The autopilot will make rapid corrections that the receiver can’t follow. We would punch off the autopilot & hand fly the plane. Greater course & altitude deviations were allowed but again SMOOTH corrections enabled the receiver to stay on the boom & get their gas. The boom operator was absolutely critical to making this all work. The joke in our squadron was that it took 3 officers to take an enlisted guy to work. It’s true!
    Fuel is transferred from the Forward & Rear body tanks. Each tank has 2 air refuelling pumps -no gravity feed. For big guys, like the C-5 or B-52, we would use all 4 pumps until they got pretty full, the reduce to 2 pumps. For fighters like the F-4, 2 pumps would do. From probe & drogue (F-100, B-66) one pump was enough.

  • Thanks for that edifying comment, Bob! I hesitated to say tankers rolled to 30 degrees of bank in those racetrack turns, thinking I might be misremembering and that the turns were more gentle, like say 20 degrees of bank. But absolutely, except for one overzealous KC-10 boomer who vigorously moved my F-15 up and down and left and right after plugging me, boomers and tanker pilots were always smooth. And thankfully so!

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