Thunderbird Crash Blamed on Pilot Error

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A pilot's error caused a Thunderbirds F-16 to crash during a September air show in Idaho, the Air Force said Wednesday.

Capt. Chris R. Stricklin, of Shelby, Ala., misjudged his altitude before beginning a maneuver, said Col. Robert Beletic, head of the six-member Air Force board that investigated the crash at Mountain Home Air Force Base, southeast of Boise. Stricklin realized his error and ejected after banking the aircraft away from spectators.

Lt. Col. Richard McSpadden, who commands the Air Force precision military flying team, said the pilot was flying a pattern he had performed at least 200 times before. But Stricklin failed to adequately compensate for the airfield's elevation above sea level before beginning the takeoff maneuver known as a split-S, he said.

Instead of topping out at 2,500 feet, the jet was only 1,670 feet above the ground when it rolled over backward to return past the crowd. By then the aircraft was too low for Stricklin to correct the maneuver, Beletic said.

"The pilot made a 1,000-foot mistake at low altitude," Beletic said. "Once he put his nose to the ground, he had to eject at some point."

Stricklin bailed out of the $20.4 million aircraft flying about 250 miles per hour 140 feet above the runway. The jet hit the ground less than a second later and exploded in a fireball. Stricklin was unhurt, and no one on the ground was injured.

"He made an honest mistake," McSpadden told a news conference at Nellis Air Force Base, the Thunderbirds' training home near Las Vegas.

Stricklin, 31, remains a pilot, McSpadden said, but because of the error he was reassigned last month to the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., without completing his two-year stint with the Thunderbirds.

"We recognize that we're stewards of $20 million airplanes, and we take that very seriously," he said.

The team canceled four performances after the crash, before resuming flying in October, though the number of aircraft was cut from six to five.

The Thunderbirds will again fly with six aircraft when they begin a 42-stop, 2004 season on March 27-28 at Punta Gorda, Fla. One pilot who was with the team last year will tour for a third year in Stricklin's spot, McSpadden said.

Beletic said that in addition to the miscalculation and a momentary loss of focus by Stricklin, the review board said a low margin for error contributed to the crash. Fatigue was not a factor, McSpadden said.

The split-S maneuver remains in the show, with what McSpadden called minor adjustments to ensure pilots correctly calculate their elevation above sea level. The maneuver also will be flown at a higher altitude to increase the margin for errors, he said.

The September crash was the second involving a Thunderbirds jet since the team began using F-16s in 1983.

Pilot error was blamed for a Feb. 14, 1994, training crash involving in a maneuver called a spiral descent at the Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield, northwest of Las Vegas. The pilot survived, but the maneuver was discontinued.

The worst crash in Thunderbird history, dubbed the "Diamond Crash," came when four pilots crashed Jan. 18, 1982, during training at Indian Springs. A malfunction in the lead plane was blamed.

The Thunderbirds marked their 50th year in November.


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