I’ve avoided writing about the first aircraft accident I investigated for the U.S. Air Force. The official report I and the other members of the mishap board wrote is privileged information. The clock doesn’t run out on that and I can’t get into specifics, nor the findings and recommendations we passed up the chain of command. But I think I’m free to talk in general about this particular mishap … god knows, plenty of others have. And it’s been more than 40 years.
In September 1981, I was almost three years into my first F-15 assignment with the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands. Whenever new pilots rotated in, one of us always met them at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, drove them back, and got them settled in. An old friend from our pilot training days in Oklahoma was arriving, so Donna and I were at Schipol to welcome him and his family. As we helped Mike, Lori, and their kids round up their stuff in baggage claim, an announcement in English came over the PA: “Captain Woodford, please pick up a white courtesy phone.” Well, that couldn’t be good, could it?
I found a phone. It was the base command post, telling me there’d been an F-15 crash, that I’d been appointed to the mishap investigation board, and to hustle back ASAP. With that limited bit of knowledge, we drove Mike and his family the 60 kilometers back to Soest, dropped them at their hotel, and headed to the base. Not knowing what I was getting into, I asked Donna to wait for me outside the command post so I could check in and find out what had happened. From the CP we had a clear view across the runway, and this is what we saw:
It was an Eagle, but not one of ours. It was from Bitburg Air Base in Germany, at the time the only other F-15 unit in Europe, on its belly in the infield between runways, canopy missing, badly damaged. The smell of fuel, hydraulic fluid, and overheated metal was everywhere. Several squadron mates were at the CP, and they filled me in. There was a Dutch open house that day, planned for months by the Royal Netherlands Air Force. In fact it was still going on — minus the planned flying displays, which had been called off after the crash. The Dutch side of the base was packed with civilians, getting close-up looks at different aircraft from NATO-member air forces in Europe and the UK. Our parent organization, U.S. Air Forces Europe, had sent up a demo pilot in an F-15 from Bitburg, his routine billed as one of the star attractions of the show. Of course Donna and I had known all this ahead of time. If it hadn’t been for wanting to meet Mike and Lori at Schipol, we and our kids would’ve been at the air show ourselves.
The way it worked in those days, one or two pilots or aircrews from every aircraft type assigned to USAFE was trained to perform air show demos. In the case of the F-15, demo duty alternated between Soesterberg and Bitburg. That year it was Bitburg, and the demo pilot had flown up the afternoon before in a brand new jet, recently ferried over from the McDonnell-Douglas plant in St. Louis. He’d survived the crash and was at the base clinic pending a medical release, and would be availble soon for initial interviews. The board president, always a colonel, had been picked and was on his way to Soesterberg from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. I learned I’d been appointed investigating officer, the one who heads up the actual work of the investigation and writes the final report. Other members — another pilot, a maintenance officer, a physiologist, a medical member — had yet to be selected and notified. I was still in civvies from our trip to Amsterdam, so they cut me loose for an hour so that Donna could drive me home and I could change back into uniform.
When I got back, I learned my own commander had already interviewed the demo pilot and let him go. He was no longer at the clinic, but on a train back to Germany. That wasn’t how things were supposed to work, but it’s often the way they do. And no wonder: the four-star USAFE commander at Ramstein had been on the phone to my boss within minutes of the crash, breathing down his neck, demanding details. We, the members of the mishap board, didn’t get to interview our pilot for a week, who by then had settled on a story: he couldn’t avoid hitting the ground because his engines quit working properly.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Here’s a satellite view of Soesterberg Air Base as it was then, north to the top. The American side of the base was south of the east/west runway. The Dutch occupied the northeast side of the shorter diagonal runway. The open house, being a Dutch affair, was on their side of the base, and that’s where the crowds were. The “show line” for flying displays was along the diagonal runway, which as you can see was oriented northwest to southeast (today the base is closed and the runways, aside from a glider strip, are gone).
Because the ramp on the Dutch side would be packed with static display aircraft, the RNLAF directed pilots and aircrews of flying display aircraft to stage out of other Dutch bases. That was the case with the Bitburg F-15 pilot, who flew in the afternoon before and landed at Gilze-Rijen Air Base, 50 or 60 kilometers down the road from Soesterberg. The next morning, air show day, the plan was for him to launch, orbit between Gilze-Rijen and Soesterberg until called in, and perform his demo. He’d arrive from the northwest and perform his 15-minute routine on the NW/SE show line. After his final low pass, headed SE, he’d pitch up to pattern altitude and turn left base to land to the west on the longer runway, then park with our F-15s on the American side.
His show routine went off as planned, and when it was done he aggressively pulled up for a tight left base turn to Runway 27. He lowered the flaps and landing gear and started an equally aggressive descending left turn to land. Halfway through he overshot the runway, leveled the wings and added power to go around, but continued descending. He dropped into the trees to the northwest of the runway threshold, pancaked onto the ground, slid across the runway to the grass on the other side, and came to rest with both engines roaring at full power, sucking in grass and dirt at one end and blowing it out the other. During the slide across the runway the forward part of the fuselage, containing the cockpit, broke away from the aft section and the canopy flew off. When the aircraft stopped, the pilot jumped from the cockpit to the ground and ran. As the first emergency response trucks approached, he stopped, ripped his helmet from his head, and threw it to the ground. There was a minor fire at the break point between the forward and aft sections of the fuselage, but it was quickly smothered by foam. At some point a fireman reached into the cockpit and secured the throttles, shutting the engines down.*
We know all this because it was captured on video by dozens of Dutch civilians. Several Americans, including some of my F-15 squadron mates, had also watched and filmed the demo and crash, but from our side of the base. We had video from multiple angles and plenty of witnesses. Best of all, we had a living pilot to tell us what had happened from his end, and an almost-intact aircraft for forensic examination. As mishap investigations go, this should have been an easy one — and a great introduction for yours truly, who went on to investigate, and oversee the investigations of, several more mishaps, many of them far worse, more complex, and too often fatal.
I and the other board members were sidelined from regular duties for five weeks. We were given an empty conference room to use at Soesterberg. We brought in experts to examine the wrecked aircraft, and made frequent trips to Bitburg to interview the mishap pilot (back on flying duty while we, temporarily grounded, worked full time investigating his crash). We finished up in a little over a month, and the board president and I went to HQ USAFE at Ramstein to brief the four-star, General Gabriel. He agreed with our conclusions and signed off on our findings and recommendations, and thus ended my first lesson in mishap investigation.
Here’s where I can’t get too specific. The big sticking point was the pilot’s insistence that once he realized he’d botched the landing and tried to go around, the engines didn’t respond. The videos weren’t much use, because none of them gave us a clear view of the engine intake ramps and exhaust nozzles, from which you can get a pretty good idea of how engines are working. The forensic evidence, however, showed that both engines were operating at full military power upon impact. In short, we didn’t believe the pilot but couldn’t completely prove he was wrong.
Based on the best witness testimony, that of other F-15 pilots who’d watched it happen, the mishap pilot, who’d never landed at or even seen Soesterberg before the crash, had pulled up way too close laterally to the landing runway, probably because during his flying demo he’d been oriented to a different runway, the diagonal one. At the perch — what we call the position where you’re parallel to the landing runway, headed in the opposite direction, gear and flaps down, ready to start the descending 180-degree turn to land — he was too tight to make the turn without overshooting. When he realized how tight he was he tried to salvage the turn by increasing his bank angle, killing most of his lift and starting to drop like a rock. Sensing the ground rush, he rolled out and shoved the throttles forward, but too late to arrest his descent. He sheared the tops off several trees and pancaked into the ground, snapping off all three landing gear and breaking the fuselage in two. He never considered ejecting and that’s a good thing considering his rate of descent. We concluded that he had a perfectly good jet, but crashed it because he misjudged how tight he was to the runway he meant to land on.
Would he still have misjudged his lateral displacement if he’d been familiar with the runway layout at Soesterberg? Who knows? NATO politics kept us from digging too deep into the decision to have him stage out of another airfield. Was the jet, which actually didn’t look that bad afterward, salvaged? No, it was not: the longerons, part of the basic structure of the airframe, were too badly bent and broken, and it was written off as a total loss. The mishap pilot stayed in the USAF and continued to fly; he died a few years later when he flew another F-15 into the ground.
Part of the lore around this mishap is the jet itself, tail # 80-007, which as I indicated was new, with less than 30 hours of flying time at the time of the crash. You’ll sometimes hear 007 referred to as the “Shrimp Boat.” USAFE had just finished converting all its F-15s from the original A & B models to the newer C & D models, first Soesterberg, then Bitburg. The way that worked, we’d fly the older jets, with tanker support, across the Atlantic to Eglin AFB on the Florida Panhandle, take commercial flights to St. Louis, pick up new jets at the factory, and fly them back to Europe.
Whoever picked up 007 at McDonnell-Douglas had come up from Florida with an Igloo cooler full of ice, shrimp, and live oysters. He strapped the cooler down in Bay 5, an open area behind the cockpit, for the flight to Bitburg. During the 8+ hour ferry flight home the cooler leaked, and salty water caused some internal corrosion that had to be repaired before 007 could start flying regular missions at Bitburg. Hence, the Shrimp Boat.* Hey, we all did it, filling Bay 5 with German wine and Dutch cheese for flights back to the States, then flying back with fresh seafood and Jeremiah Weed for our buddies (that’s another story: you can read about the Jeremiah Weed tradition here).
One last tidbit: months after we’d submitted the mishap report and were back working our regular jobs, a Dutch teenager knocked on my door in the village of Hoevelaken. He was one of the plane spotters who’d sneak under the fence and hide in the woods by Soesterberg’s runways, snapping photos of aircraft taking off and landing. He handed me a box of black & white 8 X 10s, shots of our mishap jet at various stages of its disastrous final turn, from the perch right down to impact. The intake ramps and exhaust nozzles were crisp and clear, positioned just how you’d expect them to be with the engines at full military power. Contrary to the mishap pilot’s testimony, this was clear evidence the engines were working fine, just as I and the other board members thought. The Dutch teenager hadn’t come forward earlier out of fear that when we realized the photos had been taken from a restricted, off-limits area inside the base, he’d get in trouble. He allowed me to keep the prints on my promise not to divulge his name. I shared them with other members of the board, including the colonel who headed it up, who I believe slipped them under the table to General Gabriel. It was nice to know we’d gotten it right.
*See the comment from reader Gene Buckle (who today owns the cockpit of the very jet I just wrote about), below. My memory of a responding fireman reaching into the cockpit to shut the engines down is vivid, but may be from a different mishap. As for the origin of the Shrimp Boat legend, I wasn’t there for the loading of the shrimp, but was repeating what I’d been told by others.