thunderbird-crash

Before anything else is said, I’d like to render a note of absolute respect for Maj. Alex Turner and the job he did on June 2, 2016. It’s not commonly understood outside the military aviation community how difficult it is to bring a graceful end to a chaotic emergency behind the controls of a high-performance aircraft. That’s what Turner did, and he ought to be lauded for it. Confronted with a limping jet that is inherently unstable even when things are going well and a total bitch to deal with when things go awry, he somehow got the thing on the ground in reasonably decent shape, without hurting anyone, and himself in one piece. It was a feat of aviation we should be celebrating at a Sully Sullenberger volume. But that would require telling more truth than the Air Force is willing to license.

Now don’t take this the wrong way, Air Force … but when you publish reports about aircraft accidents, anyone with an active brain presumes a high bullshit-to-honesty ratio. Most of all your own pilots and maintainers, who typically find themselves scapegoated for the structural, systemic, and management failures that manufacture mishaps despite their best efforts. Your latest Accident Investigation Board (AIB) report demonstrates why, straining to look legitimate as it raises more questions than it provides answers.

Before we illuminate some of those questions, let’s review the difference between an AIB and a Safety Investigation Board (SIB). For the uninitiated, a SIB is a privileged process, the findings of which are not released to the public. The conceit of the SIB is a no-holds-barred unearthing of truth data to learn the necessary lessons to prevent recurrence of a mishap. The reason for privilege is that if there is concern about the legal consequences of telling the unvarnished truth, it might not come out. The AIB is, then, the theoretically more honest process, in that whatever it says can be used in official proceedings against participants in the mishap, or even — more importantly — against the Air Force itself.

The bottom line is that both processes are riddled with deceit. SIBs will strain to isolate blame to individuals while ignoring or eliding genuine root causes that might damage general officers. AIBs are totally about protecting the institution to the extent possible, often by providing the legal foundation to demonstrate how individual airmen “went rogue.” I could list a dozen examples to support this proposition. Neither process should be taken without healthy scepticism, though the structure and process of the SIB make it more susceptible to truth. [Note: the author is a graduate of the Air Force Safety Board President course and an experienced mishap investigator in both operations and maintenance].

The AIB explaining the loss of the Thunderbird opposing solo after the US Air Force Academy graduation on June 2 is a superb example of indemnification dressed up to look like investigation. It doesn’t tell us what happened. It concocts an alternative theory and discusses it ad nauseum in order to smother the truth under the weight of doctored perception. In doing so, it unfairly injures the wrong parties and negligently lets others off the hook.

Before I expound, here’s the report. Read for yourself.

Here are some things that should be noted.

First, the report almost totally sidesteps any meaningful analysis of fuel state and fuel consumption. This is a red flag.

There’s mention of takeoff being delayed 30 minutes due to an inordinately long graduation ceremony, but this fact is discarded as inconsequential. Raise your watch, because this is nonsense. 30 minutes of fuel burn in an F-16 — even on the ground — is everything. It can be and often is the difference between life and death for someone. F-16s don’t start until they are ready to take off. Thunderbirds are notorious for refusing to start early under any circumstance. Any circumstance save for one, it seems: deference to the President of the United States. In this case, his speech ran long, the timeline was blown, and yet the Thunderbird plan did not change. That means something. It means something more than this report wants it to mean. By the report’s own admission, Turner arrived to downwind for his final approach with 1000 pounds of fuel, which is a few minutes of engine operation in an F-16. Without the lengthy ground time prior to takeoff, he’d have had twice as much in the tanks.

How did that impact his decisions? This is the most important question, and the one the AIB never addresses. The report spends most of its 41 pages discussing how a faulty throttle trigger allowed Turner to inadvertently shut down his engine as he set up for final approach. But it doesn’t explain why, if this is what occurred but Turner didn’t understand it at the time, he didn’t simply re-light the engine by following the emergency procedure of placing it forward. If Turner thought his engine was failing but that it was intermittently re-lighting, why didn’t he push the throttle all the way forward to get it away from the cutoff position and to gain some precious airspeed? Why didn’t he “zoom” the aircraft to trade energy for altitude upon first noticing a thrust issue? This is textbook F-16 procedure.

One explanation that might answer all of these questions is that Turner was concerned about a dangerously low fuel state. This might make him uncomfortable zooming the jet. It might make him hesitant to advance the throttle beyond its aft stop. If Turner knew he had a fuel state that would make recovery and landing impossible, this would explain why he swiftly made the decision to use his precious last seconds to put the aircraft in the best possible attitude and energy state before ejecting.

Here’s what I suspect really happened.

The team lit their engines based on the agreed timeline, but that timeline was nullified by one Barack Obama, whose commencement speech ran long. Someone made the decision that the show must go on. This left the team low on fuel for their recovery — something backed by rumours that the jet landing in front of Turner flamed out during taxi operations due to fuel starvation. Whatever happened to Turner’s F-16, it was either triggered or compounded by fuel issues.

When all was said and done, no one wanted to be seen blaming the Commander In Chief for a lost F-16, especially when no one bothered to tell him that if he bloviated, it would nix the aerial demo (or should have). No one wants to be seen blaming the boss. Not with so many general officer promotions in the balance, not when the Air Force is already taking a beating on the Hill, and certainly not at a time when frills like an expensive aerial demonstration team are on the budgetary chopping block.

So instead, the Air Force did what it typically does: it blamed maintenance. Never mind that this throttle would have been inspected within the previous 50 hours by one of the most selectively manned maintenance teams on the planet. Never mind that the Air Force has hundreds of F-16s and has lost dozens to mishaps … and yet this is the first such loss ascribed to a stuck throttle trigger. Never mind that there is absolutely no legitimate design that would make maintenance responsible for an inadvertent throttle retardation to the cutoff position while in flight. None. This is a design flaw that would upend the airworthiness of any aircraft, but especially a high-performance fighter.

Operational leadership requires a tighter turn radius than that achievable in retail politics. It takes skill to keep these two in formation even as they manoeuvre via different methods. The Air Force lacks that skill.

Fortunately, its individual pilots have plenty enough skill to make up some of the difference, with the capable support of its superior maintainers. The only reason there is still an Air Force is because of these people. Breaking faith with them is ill advised.