LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, AZ - An instructor pilot is to blame for the June crash of an F-16 fighter at Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix because he made a rapid climbing turn after hitting several birds while taking off, robbing the plane of airspeed and the ability to recover, according to an Air Force investigation report released Thursday.
The report released by the Air Force Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas said the instructor should have kept climbing straight ahead until the F-16 had enough airspeed to recover and return to the base. There was likely enough engine power to safely land despite a series of engines stalls, the report said.
The instructor pilot had taken over the controls from a student for a touch-and-go practice maneuver at the base when the engine lost performance after hitting the birds. The climbing turn meant the nearly $23 million jet lost airspeed and could not maintain altitude, and the two pilots had to eject.
The pilot was trying to reach a pre-determined point that would have positioned the fighter for a return to the runway.
The plane crashed in a farm field, and the pilots were unhurt. They were not identified.
The accident board blamed the instructor for not monitoring airspeed and engine performance while looking outside the jet during the climbing turn. That limited the time available to realize the aircraft's speed had dropped to dangerous levels and prevented recovery from the bird strike.
The accident board report also noted that the engine had not failed and was producing enough power when the plane crashed that the pilot should have been able to successfully recover if proper procedures had been followed.
The pilot has been grounded during the investigation, but is going through retraining and should return to flight status soon, said Lt. Col. Mike Cowan, the safety officer for the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke.
"This is a difficult business, and as much training as we go through and rigorously go through our processes, humans make mistakes," Cowan said in an interview.
The instructor pilot had more than 1,000 hours of flight time, including nearly 800 hours in the F-16. The student pilot was actually more experienced, with nearly 2,200 hours of flight time and 1,931 in F-16s. That pilot was going through a re-qualification course because he had been on non-flying assignments for nearly four years and hadn't flown an F-16 since November 2009, the report said. He has since completed re-qualification and has moved on to his new assignment, Cowan said.
The student pilot told investigators he was taken by surprise by the emergency and believed he couldn't tell the instructor pilot he should not have started the turn. That pilot also didn't scan the flight instruments, blaming the mistake on lack of recent experience.
The base 15 miles west of Phoenix in Glendale trains fighter pilots in the F-16 and had 138 of the jets before the June 26 crash. The base is getting ready to transition to the military's new F-35 fighter and is expected to have 144 of the jets within about 10 years.
Base spokesman Capt. Tristan Hinderliter noted that the F-16 came down in open farmland, something the base, nearby cities and the state have worked to maintain as a safety buffer despite the rapid urbanization of the area.