F-16 Ejection Followed Unauthorized Intercept Of GA Aircraft


An Air Force accident investigation says a Tulsa Air National Guard F-16 was destroyed after an off-the-books intercept of a private light aircraft near a Louisiana airport last March. Investigators found the pilot of the $26 million fighter mistakenly thought he’d lost control of the fighter as he closed in on the unidentified light aircraft to read its tail number. He ejected safely but the aircraft became a smudge on some scrubland in the Warrior Military Operating Area. The report says the pilot hit the wrong button as he maneuvered the Viper near the stall to read the registration and he could have safely recovered. But it also takes the pilot and the flight lead in a second F-16 to task for airmanship and leadership issues.

“Also, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Board President found two substantially contributing factors to the mishap, 1) lack of flight leadership and 2) lack of flight discipline, in MFL and MP’s violation of various training rules, including intercepting a non-participating GA aircraft, and incorrectly handling the F-16 in a low speed and low altitude environment,” the report says. The flight of two launched from Ellington Field in Houston, where they were attached to the 138th Fighter Wing, on the morning of March 22 with goals to practice a high-speed intercept by the pilot on the flight lead’s F-16 and to refuel from a tanker. After the practice intercept, the pilot spotted the small plane flying the holding pattern below the MOA floor at 1,700 feet and the flight lead told him to go and get the tail number.

They didn’t contact the GA aircraft or civilian air traffic control about the intercept. “During this unplanned and uncoordinated intercept, the MP failed to maintain positive aircraft control in a low airspeed state,” the report says. “The MP incorrectly assessed that the aircraft had departed controlled flight below uncontrolled ejection minimums, resulting in the MP ejecting.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. “after an off-the-books intercept of a private light aircraft”
    Why do we have IDIOTS flying our military aircraft?

  2. This incident is shocking. The GA aircraft was below the floor of the MOA and was in contact with Fort Polk control; what possessed these pilots to attempt an intercept, with all the hazards incident thereto? Thankfully the aircraft and occupant(s) were unharmed. The report documents multiple violations of intercept protocols under the Human Factors heading, but does not address the most important issue: the safety and disciplinary cultures of the unit involved. I have always believed that military pilots are highly disciplined and professional, but this outfit seems to have devolved into a cowboy operation where anything goes, and did. The CO and perhaps others should be relieved, and the unit should go on a safety stand down to reinstate proper operational standards.

  3. Sum-ting-wong………

    The culture starts at the top. All the more reason to correct the problem from the top down. But they won’t. The military machine has more spin than a Maytag washing machine.

    God bless.

  4. When I was in flight training at Vincennes University back in 1991, I was on a solo cross-country to Terre Haute when a couple of F-15s from the local guard unit passed me going straight up about a half mile away. We were outside of the MOA. They were obviously messing with me, probably figured I was a student, and although it was kinda cool, it also annoyed me that they would do that.

  5. Imagine being the GA pilot in that airplane. He or She got to see an attempted intercept up close and personal and then an ejection also up close and then watch an F-16 auger in.
    What a story they had to tell….

  6. There is no defense for this, but I thought the bottom of the MOA was 100′ AGL?

    This is a real “wow” accident report. The mishap pilot (MP) was in an instructor.
    The MP moved the wrong switch the wrong way if it had been the right switch. Muscle memory should have told him which way to move it. But instead he put it in digital backup instead of putting the Alt Flaps back to Norm.
    The F-16 flies slower without using Alt Flaps. ACC and AETC need to remove Alt Flap use from low/slow VID procedures.
    While I agree with making the ejection decision before you takeoff, holy cow, this guy didn’t even try and fly it. Full AB would have catapulted him out of it. If they didn’t find the throttle in Full burner (they didn’t) then, again, what was this pilot thinking? Geez.
    Intercepting non-participating aircraft is the norm, just not for training. But saying otherwise is hard for me to believe the entire squadron “didn’t know any better.” Geez x 2.
    Never pays to cover up for stupid.

    • The F-16 is notorious/famous for its relatively poor quality very slow airspeed flight characteristics. That’s one reason why you have hot rod H-60 Blackhawks and other types of aircraft doing intercepts of very slow airspeed flying GA aircraft in the Washington DC airspace. The entire consideration of the intercept should have ended before it was even verbalized.

    • As is often the case, there is more to this than what seems to be the case at first glace.

      Apparently the GA aircraft was below the MOA, but more than that, the GA pilot was flying a practice approach and talking to approach, so however you look at it, the GA pilot wasn’t violating any rules or common sense.

      As for muscle memory, it’s still quite possible to think you have moved the intended switch/lever/knob/whatever but inadvertently moved one directly adjacent to what you think you’re doing. I know I’ve certainly done this with the light switches in the PA-28 aircraft. And since the control panel in question is apparently not in direct line of sight, I can see that mistake being made while trying to fly formation at the same time while low and slow.

      Even with the aircraft still recoverable, my understanding is that the pilot essentially had only a second or two to figure out what was wrong, so I can certainly understand how the pilot might not have realized what actually happened and just assumed the aircraft wasn’t behaving normally and decided it was time to punch out.

      I suspect the real issue is probably a variation on the normalization of deviance at that airwing. Normalization of bending some of the training rules here and there to the point where that’s just standard practice and no one really thinks to question it. It’s hard for an individual to go against institutional momentum, and I would think particularly so in a military environment where you generally avoid breaking the chain of command. Things certainly need to change there, but if one looks at all of the events leading up to this mishap, like many, it appears to be the result of multiple chains of events rather than maliciousness or ignorance.

      • …as deliciously confirmed by Gerry’s* use of “new” and “thier” in his failed comment. So yes…truly an idiot, blissfully ignorant of how ironic he/she/they voluntarily confirmed that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. (* ironic aside: gender identity unclear due to androgynous given name and no helpful pronouns provided)

  7. National Guard again. We should merge the USAF National Guard units with the USAF Reserve and only have Reserve units. Governors don’t need to control USAF assets for state natural disasters. They can have plenty of aviation assets from their Army National Guard units. At one time we had the ridiculous situation of the State of Georgia Air National Guard “controlling” some B-1B bombers. What the heck was the governor of Georgia going to use B-1Bs for during the aftermath of a hurricane?

    • The primary purpose of the National Guard is not disaster relief. That’s an understandable mistake though, given the very bad changes in policies surrounding the military since WW2.

      Perhaps we would all be better off if we took a good look at why things are the way they are, and started undoing many known mistakes rather than constantly layering new mistakes atop the old ones.

  8. The article and many comments point out that the GA pilot was clear (or not) of the MOA. Matters not! MOAs are shared airspace. To be clear, flying through a MOA (hot or not) is not a violation, while military aircraft engaging GA (or attempting to) in a MOA is a severely punishable act.

  9. Used to fly “Bad Guy” flights in a C182 in some W airspaces. It was pretty funny watching those F-15s trying to keep “down” with a 182 at low cruise.

  10. Luke AFB would constantly harass the trainees off of KDVT. clearly many at the AFB knew as it was a ‘thing’ new entrants would do on occasion. Luckily nothing major happened while I was training at DVT but a few ab initio pilots were pretty rattled at times. Kinda juvenile if you ask me

  11. When goofing around destroys a 27 million dollar asset and even though no one was seriously harmed, I think that pilot has used up all his chits. Time to find a new job.