By Paul Giblin – The Republic | azcentral.com
The Air Force blamed pilot error for a crash that destroyed a $22.7 million F-16 fighter jet near Luke Air Force Base in Glendale on June 26. An instructor pilot and a student pilot safely ejected from the single-engine plane before it flew unmanned on a roughly nine-mile loop northwest of the base, according to a 28-page report.
The plane circled back, lost altitude and cratered into a dirt field just outside the base just before 7 p.m., according to the report prepared by an accident-investigation board. Investigators determined three small birds flew into the jet’s engine, resulting in “degraded engine performance” shortly after takeoff on a touch-and-go training exercise. However, officials blamed the crash on the instructor pilot’s handling of the aircraft after the bird strikes. “The board president found by clear and convincing evidence that the cause of the mishap was decision-making error by the (instructor pilot),” the report states. The report does not identify pilots, and Luke officials similarly declined to identify them, citing privacy concerns. The report states that the student pilot had been practicing engine-failure situations earlier in the mission. Afterward, the instructor pilot took control of the plane to practice landing from his backseat position. He had completed a touch-and-go and had retracted the landing gear when three birds were ingested into the plane’s engine. The student pilot noticed the smell of the burnt birds, and both pilots heard a low-grade buzzing sound, followed by a pop and a bang, indicating a blowout, according to the report.
The instructor pilot erroneously chose to climb while making a hard right turn in an attempt to get in between 3,000 and 5,000 feet above ground level, from which the pilot could make an emergency landing, according to the report. The maneuver robbed the plane of altitude and airspeed, the investigators said. The pilot should have kept flying straight and climbed to 7,000 to 10,000 feet above ground level, which would have given him more speed and time to recover control before attempting an emergency landing, according to the report. The instructor pilot also focused his attention outward, rather than checking his instruments, which limited his ability to fully analyze the situation, according to the report. As the pilot was turning, the plane banged violently and the pilot anticipated immediate engine failure, so he maneuvered the plane away from populated areas, and 24 or 25 seconds after the birds struck, both pilots ejected. “At this point, the (instructor pilot) made a timely and accurate decision directing ejection,” the report states. They ejected from about 1,500 feet, which is 500 feet below the recommended height, but parachuted safely.
The plane flew on, looping to the north, flying roughly 4.1 to 4.6 miles over farm fields, gaining altitude en route. Then it turned back toward Luke, descended and crashed. The data recorders in the plane were destroyed by the impact, so the reasons the plane looped are unclear, said Lt. Col. Michael Cowan, who serves as chief of safety at Luke. “It was a fairly violent impact,” he said. Neither pilot was disciplined, Cowan said. The student pilot, an experienced pilot who was being re-certified on the F-16, completed his course and has been assigned elsewhere, Cowan said. The instructor pilot was grounded pending the outcome of the report. He will be given additional training, then he is expected to be reassigned as an instructor at Luke, Cowan said.