Excessive air speed coupled with landing too far down a wet runway caused a Thunderbird F-16 fighter jet to leave the airstrip and flip over at Dayton International Airport on the day before the Vectren Dayton Air Show last June, an Air Force accident investigation concluded.
The mishap injured team narrator and F-16 pilot Capt. Erik Gonsalves, who was hospitalized for leg injuries, and destroyed the $29.2 million fighter jet on June 23, according to the Air Force. A second crewman who was a backseat passenger in the F-16D jet was uninjured, the Air Force said.
An accident investigation board also concluded that rain on a canopy windscreen contributed to the accident, along with not following proper braking procedures during the landing, the report said.
Approach and landing speed, how far down a runway an aircraft lands, and the condition of the airstrip can be key factors in a mishap, said Michael L. Barr, a former Air Force fighter pilot and a University of Southern California aviation safety expert. Barr has conducted past accident board investigations for the Air Force.
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Fighter pilots “are trained to land in any kind of weather,” he said. “If you’re flying a fighter, then you’re qualified to land.”
Still, mishaps involving aerial precision jet teams like the Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels are not common, he said.
“They’re very few and far between considering how many flights they fly each year,” he said. “They are really safety conscious.”
‘You make a little bit of a judgment’
The Air Force Thunderbirds, which fly six jets in precision formation flying, scrubbed appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show after the incident, and had canceled a team practice the day of the accident because of weather conditions, the report said.
During the F-16 jet’s final approach on June 23, the Dayton air traffic control tower advised the pilot of “wind shear and extreme precipitation over the field,” the report noted.
Still, investigators concluded the single F-16 jet on the first of what was planned to be three crew familiarization flights that day could have landed within the conditions, the report said.
The Thunderbird jet landed nearly 4,800 feet down the 10,900-foot-long runway, and was traveling above recommended speeds given the wet conditions, the report said.
“They tell you on a wet runway to try to land firm and try to land as close as you can to the end of the runway to have enough distance” to stop, said Richard Lohnes, a former F-16 pilot and prior commander of the 178th Fighter Wing at Springfield Air National Guard Base. “It was sure not the perfect situation to land the F-16, but that’s quite a bit of runway.
“In that situation, you make a little bit of a judgment one way or the other and it can make a big difference in the outcome,” Lohnes said.
Once the plane left the runway and rolled into a muddy, grassy area, the landing gear collapsed and the jet flipped, trapping both the pilot and passenger for more than an hour. Rescuers used a circular saw to cut through the broken canopy and hydraulic spreaders to free the trapped crew.
Dayton International Airport and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base rescue crews were cautious handling the damaged jet, working carefully to avoid triggering the ejection seats, said Gil Turner, airport deputy director.
“That was a huge challenge with the aircraft being upside down and understanding the hazards of a military jet,” he said Friday.
The front ejection seat had become dislodged from the jet and added to the difficulty of extracting the pilot, the report said.
Gonsalves has returned to the team as narrator, but has not been medically cleared to fly, Maj. Malinda Singleton, an Air Combat Command spokeswoman, said Friday.
The extent of the pilot’s injuries have not been disclosed, but the report described them as “significant.”
Gonsalves had nearly 1,700 hours flying time, most in the A-10 Thunderbolt II, with nearly 150 hours in the F-16 Fighting Falcon at the time of the accident, the report said.
The investigation did not find mechanical failure as a cause in the accident and the jet had passed recent inspections, the board report said.
The Thunderbirds’ cancellation, along with heavy rains, led to a drop in attendance at this year’s air show, said Terry Grevious, executive director.
Still, the show managed a small profit, he said.
The Thunderbirds cancellation was the second consecutive year a military jet flight team scrubbed performances in Dayton. The Blue Angels canceled a 2016 appearance at the Dayton Air Show and several other locales in the aftermath of a pilot’s fatal crash during a practice demonstration flight in Tennessee.
The Blue Angels are scheduled to return to the Dayton Air Show next June.