What an F-16 Pilot Sees—and Misses

Two experienced fighter pilots on suspending judgment about the latest aviation disaster, and the operating realities of the Air Force jet that rammed into a little civilian airplane

Cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, shown in a ground trainer.  (Wikimedia)

For background discussion of the tragedy early this month, when an Air Force F-16 hit a civilian Cessna 150 at low altitude near Charleston, South Carolina, please see: “Why Would an F-16 and a Cessna Be in the Same Part of the Sky?”, “Why an F-16 Hit a Cessna,” “Civilian and Military Aviation Styles,” and “Can the ‘Right Stuff’ Become the Wrong Stuff?”

For now I intend to wrap this discussion up, until the National Transportation Safety Board or other authorities offer additional facts or news, with two very interesting letters from experienced military flyers. The first takes me to task for leaning toward conclusions, ahead of the complete evidence. I’ll let him make his case in full:

I’m a retired USAF F-15 pilot and my military career involved a 3-year exchange flying CF-18’s in the Canadian AF as well as 1-year as an F-15 squadron Director of Operations and 2 as commanding officer of the same unit. Since retiring, I flew 2.5 years as a civilian contract F-15SG instructor [for another country’s Air Force], was a King Air 200 captain for Part 91 & 135 [non-commercial and charter] operations, and currently fly regional jets professionally.

I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced a similar incident as in South Carolina, but have had close calls with other aircraft as a military pilot and as a commercial pilot after retirement. I served as my installation’s Chief of Safety and have been trained, though never participated in, the management of a safety investigation board.

From a process perspective, as soon as there is an incident involving a USAF aircraft the service convenes up to two investigation boards depending on the severity of the incident. In this case, they most certainly convened a Safety Investigation Board (SIB) and an Accident Investigation Board (AIB), each likely headed by a general officer since there were fatalities.

The SIB's task is to determine what happened and why in a non-punitive environment in order to get as full a story from the participants as possible, thus attempting to prevent repeat occurrences. The SIB’s findings are not part of the public domain, but rather remain in a ‘need to know’ status for the sole purpose of preventing future accidents. The 'Safety Privilege’ contained within the SIB process has had very positive impacts on lowering the overall USAF accident rate over time....

The AIB’s task is similar, but the key difference is that the AIB’s findings can be released to the public and any interviewee has the option to invoke his legal right to remain silent and not to incriminate himself….

In addition to the formal process, the USAF fighter squadron culture has a very strong emphasis on post-mission debriefings, which can last for many hours. Our post-flight debriefs follow their own formalized process whereby the flight lead / instructors attempt to determine the Root Cause error as to why a mission went awry or (less usually) went well. They will attempt to determine the Debrief Focal Point(s) which, as the name implies, is intended to focus the mission’s participants on a specific error and any Contributing Factors that led to that error. They then provide specific instructional fixes to prevent future occurrences of the CF’s and ultimately the Root Cause error.

Our mantra was ‘0.0% debrief until all the relevant facts are on the table.’

The reason I’m writing is that the tone of your articles feels as if you are beginning to lay blame on the F-16 pilot before all the facts are on the table. I’ve read a lot of your articles about the civilian-military relationship and enjoyed your Chickenhawk series. I think you do a very good job of giving voice to all sides of the issue and try and back your writing up with facts or opinions informed by facts.

I’m guessing you don’t choose the photos that lead your stories, but whomever did used what is clearly a staged-for-the-camera picture of 2 F-16’s weaving at low altitude and then one of our favorite 1986 naval aviator, Maverick Mitchell who I think everyone would agree was not the paragon of professional aviation. To fellow civilian pilots whose only familiarity with military aviation is airshows and stylized movies, this contributes to your article’s tones being one attempting to determine why an unprofessional military pilot ran over an unfortunate light civilian aircraft. I don’t think that’s what you intended. [JF confession: much of the time I do find and choose the pictures, including these. The F-16 picture was designed to show what the airplanes look like and how they can maneuver. The Top Gun shot … well, it was very late at night, and it was the picture I found; I did not intend it to have the effect the reader mentions.]

As you say in your article, the NTSB has a long way to go to determine what caused the crash in their opinion. The USAF SIB and AIB most likely are working with the NTSB, but the 3 processes will remain separate.

In addition to what you’ve already highlighted, I can come up with numerous questions that hopefully will be answered during the investigation such as why didn’t the light civilian pilot see and avoid the F-16 (I know the F-16 pilot had the same responsibility even though he was on an IFR flight plan)? [JF answer: It would appear to be because the F-16 was approaching from a rear angle, and moving so fast, and in an area where the Cessna pilot would not have expected a low-flying fighter plane.] Did the civilian pilot have any electronic tools in the cockpit that could have warned him of the impending collision (ADS-B traffic via a Stratus displayed on Foreflight for example)? [JF note: I use this Stratus/Foreflight/ADS-B system myself, which is very useful.] If so, why didn’t they work?

Why did the controller issue a south vector that took the F-16 across the nose of the civilian aircraft instead of to the north? The F-16 has at least 2 radios and perhaps 3. Was there other communications on those radios that blocked the initial traffic call from ATC and that’s what prompted him to ask for confirmation that the unknown aircraft was at 2 miles? Your focus on the NTSB timeline and the F-16’s relatively slow heading change after being given an immediate turn by the controller is premature. That may be a major factor or could even turn out to not be germane to the accident.

My recommendation is not to continue to conflate this incident with your recent writings on the civil-military divide until we let the investigators do their level best to get all the facts on the table and to determine the root cause as to why this tragic accident occurred. In that way, we can avoid inflammatory rhetoric (from others, not you) and have an intelligent discussion as to what we can do differently, if anything, to best prevent another tragedy such as this one…

A last point. One of my themes when I was in command is that you're always one flight away from being the biggest idiot to have ever flown the (fill-in-the-blank aircraft). This business is incredibly unforgiving and you are always judged by your most recent mission/flight/landing etc. Your margin for mistakes may be razor thin any particular day. It takes constant preparation and professional conduct to succeed in being an old less-bold pilot.

Now, from a similarly informed perspective but with a different angle, another reader writes about a cultural factor that may operate within the military, rather than between the military and civilian spheres:

I was an Air Force F-16 pilot for 8 years, and I was also the squadrons’ Safety Officer. I was qualified to investigate crashes for the Air Force as a junior officer after I completed a brief 6 week course on crash investigation at [an Air Force base].

The crash earlier this month is a real tragedy, and I feel bad for everyone involved – especially the two guys who died and their families. I’m writing to give you some of my thoughts since I am more knowledgeable on this general topic than most of your readers.

Overall, I blame the situation more than any of the individual pilots involved. I know blaming the situation can be unsatisfying to those who want to find someone to hang, but understanding the system which allowed (caused?) this to happen is the best way to reduce the likelihood of the next crash from occurring.

The most ironic aspect to the crash is the F-16 was flying instrument approaches, which is arguably the safest, most banal activity regularly performed in the F-16. Nevertheless, flying instrument approaches in theF-16 at an unfamiliar airfield can be extremely taxing, and flying instrument approaches in the F-16 usually prevents the pilot from looking outside and searching for VMC traffic.

As another reader pointed out, FAA regulations require a second pilot to look outside and clear for VFR traffic while the first pilot focuses on instrument flying. But there is only one seat in the F-16! To make matters worse, the F-16 can’t fly slower than 300 knots on downwind and base without being too slow to be safe. Climb out is performed at 350 knots, and downwind and base are flown at 300 knots. [JF note: for comparison, my Cirrus operates at about 1/3 these speeds. Climb out at around 120 knots, “downwind” leg on approach at 100, etc.] Most aircraft are required to fly below 250 knots below 10,000 feet, but the F-16 has a waiver since the jet won’t fly that slow.

The F-16 also has a minimally functional autopilot. The autopilot is so poor at holding altitude that the autopilot is unusable for instrument flight. The autopilot is more of a novelty, something to occupy time on a cross country than something to be trusted during a critical phase of flight. I never used the autopilot in the F-16 for more than a few minutes out of curiosity, and most of the other pilots I flew with didn’t use the autopilot either.

It’s hard to explain to someone what it’s like flying an approach to final at 300 knots in a single seat airplane without an autopilot at an unfamiliar airfield while running out of fuel (the F-16 is always running out of fuel).

I can summarize it this way: the task is way too busy to be done safely. Like so many things done in the F-16, the pilot is just trying to keep his head above water and dropping out most tasks other than basic flying. Fighter pilots have very little experience flying instrument approaches at unfamiliar fields, because 95% to 99% of takeoffs and landings occur at the same airport, day after day.

The pilot was probably a little task saturated and heads-down staring at his lap when he collided with the Cessna aircraft. He had just finished flying an approach at Myrtle Beach, and he was probably juggling several approach plate books while trying to fly, communicate, and navigate in a single-seat fighter. If he was mentally behind, then he would have emotionally resisted the controller’s suggestion to make a shorter turn to final. He may have wanted to fly west for longer to give himself more time. He probably only had enough fuel to make one attempt at the approach, because a standard rate turn would have added another 10 to 12 minutes to set up the approach again. More importantly, he would have lost face by not being ready for the short vectors to final.

Did you notice I used the word “suggestion” to characterize the controller’s vectors? The word choice was intentional.

Fighter pilots learn to fly in a military environment where the controllers are enlisted people, and these enlisted people are technically lower ranking than the pilot, who is a commissioned officer. If a pilot sees an air traffic controller while walking on the base, say perhaps at the mall or walking to the grocery store, that enlisted ATC controller is required by law to both salute the pilot officer and call him “sir”. All air traffic controllers are enlisted people and must salute all pilots, who are all officers.

After fighter pilots learn to fly in this highly militarized environment (after all, it is the military), they NEVER LEAVE. Transport pilots go off into the world, flying the majority of their time with civilian ATC. Moreover, transport pilots embrace the civilian ATC system. Meanwhile many fighter pilots have very little exposure outside the military system.

But it goes even deeper than that. The Shaw AFB squadron was an Air-to-Air unit, so much (most?) of their exposure to controllers is through working with AWACS. AWACS take orders from the pilots before, during, and after the training mission, because the fighter pilot in charge leads the training mission, not the AWACS controllers. The AWACS controllers often don’t even have a speaking role in the briefing before the flight, because AWACS controllers occupy a subordinate role in the command structure of the Air-to-Air mission.

When controllers gave me a vector I didn’t like while flying the F-16, I often reacted the way many of my fellow pilots reacted: by retorting to the controller to “say reason.” Controller: “Badger11 turn left to heading 180.” Badger11: “Say reason.” We would ask the controller WHY and force the controller to give us a reason before we complied with a vector we didn’t like. That was not unusual at many places where I flew the F-16.

So I see two major possible causes to this crash as I look in from the outside, and there are probably additional factors as well. 1) l believe the act of flying the single-seat F-16 for practice instrument approaches creates an unsafe situation in a congested area, because the pilot is too busy to look outside or even think about traffic. Perhaps F-16s should not do practice approaches at congested civilian airfields. 2) The Air Force should probably re-examine the pilot-ATC relationship and look into ways culture and communication could be improved to make things safer.