Two Air Force fighter pilots whose F-16C jets collided in midair in October survived, despite one plane crashing and the other having a five-foot section of its wing sheared off, according to a report the Air Force released Friday.
The collision occurred while the jets were flying over Kansas in formation Oct. 20. One of the planes, flown by a highly experienced instructor, crashed in a grassy field in the town of Moline. The other, flown by a relatively inexperienced pilot who recently had joined their squadron, flew about 100 miles south to Tulsa Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma with part of its right wing missing, and landed safely.
This photo, and the one above, drive home the point of how dramatic the situation was:
The collision was attributed to a miscommunication between the pilots.
“According to the results of the investigation, the formation’s wingman failed to inform the flight lead of an inability to maintain visual contact with the lead aircraft,” Air Force officials said in a statement. “Simultaneously, the flight lead failed to assume visual and flight path deconfliction contributed to the pilots’ inability to realize the danger in time to take effective evasive action.”
Both planes were with the Oklahoma Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Squadron in Tulsa. They flew that day at 2:03 p.m. for a training mission in which the two aircraft were supposed to work in tandem against a third fighter that was playing the role of an enemy aircraft. They traveled more than 90 miles northwest to airspace over Kansas known as the Eureka Military Operating Area, where they could work on their maneuvers. It is shown on this Defense Department map:
The first simulated engagement ended without incident. In the second one, however, the pilots, flying in tandem, crashed into each other while attempting to take out the third plane. Their flight paths are depicted in an investigation report released by the Air Force:
Flight path before collision
Flight path during collision
The pilot of the second plane, which ultimately landed with part of its wing missing, last saw the other jet flying in tandem 16 seconds before impact, at 2:21 p.m., the Air Force found. He took a hard left turn in an attempt to chase the enemy aircraft, but the lead pilot “misperceived it as a right turn, away from him, and accordingly focused on simulating a kill” on the third plane, the investigation said.
The two right wings of the jets collided, the Air Force found. A missile on the right wingtip of the second plane and five feet of its wing hit the other jet’s “wing root,” the part closest to the fuselage, and then collided with its back right tail fin. The pilot of the doomed jet later told investigators that his memories immediately after impact are foggy, but he ejected when the wingman who had just collided with his plane called for it.
The jet went down moments later:
The pilot ejected at an altitude of about 7,500 feet, and his seat landed about 60 feet from the plane, indicating that there was little or no forward airspeed when he ejected, the Air Force found. He suffered an ankle sprain and a stiff neck and upper back.
The other pilot, now with part of his wing missing, got help from another fighter pilot in the area to visually inspect the damaged plane from the outside. They determined that it would be possible to fly south to Tulsa.