New Fighter Pilot’s Death Prompt Air Force Training Review

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The death of a new Air Force F-16 pilot in a 2020 landing accident at Shaw Air Force Base has prompted major changes in operational flight training. Lt. David Schmitz died when his ejection seat malfunctioned as his Viper slid along the runway on partially collapsed landing gear after he hit the localizer antenna while landing last June 30. It was the culmination of a night training flight for which he was utterly unprepared, according to the final investigation report. “We have worked with leadership at all levels to apply the lessons from this tragic accident beyond just the F-16 community and to all applicable weapons systems in order to minimize risk to our aircrew,” Maj. Gen. Mark Slocum, Air Combat Command director of air and space operations, said in a statement, according to military.com. Schmitz was about two-thirds of his way to becoming a fully operational combat pilot at the time of the accident. 

The mission that night was to refuel from a tanker and do a simulated attack on enemy air defenses. He was supposed to have learned aerial refueling—in daylight—during his basic F-16 training but COVID-19 measures meant there were major gaps in his training. The night mission was his first attempt at the complex operation and investigators cited the lack of training in their report. Immediately after the crash, the commander of Schmitz’s unit, the 20th Fighter Wing, took it upon himself to ensure all pilots were up to speed with skills like aerial refueling. “[While] those introductory skill sets are often taught at a training base, not a combat-coded F-16 unit … we spent some of our own wing funds to have them come up and park tankers up on our ramp here at Shaw and then fly with us multiple times per day with multiple jets,” Col. Lawrence Sullivan told the publication. “Which is a little bit of an anomaly.” The Air Force has ramped up aerial refueling training since the accident.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Senior Officers ought to be swinging from the yard arm over this sad story! Instead, they’ll probably get promoted (sic). The US Air Force failed this young ex-enlisted pilot! A lot of good subsequent changes did for this pilots family.

  2. This is certainly a tragedy for the family and friends of this young man. I have a background in training with the RCAF, USN, & Luftwaffe … it strikes me that the USAF has a systemic cultural problem for this to have happened. How was he signed off as having completed conversion without having completed A/A refueling? That would be multiple sorties… I’ve seen this sort of thing, where the system tries to run a normal process (pilot training timeline) under abnormal conditions. The chain of command is wilfully blind, the grownups (in this case training command, training Sqn COs, course directors) become complicit when they fail to say NO.
    The other cultural failure here is airmanship – he should have said, I’m not trained to do this task.

  3. I agree with J Gery that there is a lot of pressure in the AF fighter business to keep up despite setbacks. In my own F111 training we had many early problems with the airplane and many training flights were cut short by inflight emergencies. On my first solo(with an experienced Nav in the right seat) as I took off into the weather the primary attitude /INSsystem failed followed by the backup system. Droning through the clouds at 3000 feet I told the nav I had learned to fly needle, ball and airspeed as a kid. Departure gave us a left turn and surprise the turn needle was broken also. I found a big sucker hole over a big lake and dove down and returned VFR to the airbase. They told me that if I survived that, my solo was complete even though I missed refueling, low altitude navigation, terrain following radar practice and transition training. My civilian training had taught me that as the aircraft commander I was the final authority. In the AF there were a few Colonels who thought they were, but that is another story.

  4. Having been a USAF instructor in both a training unit and operational unit (F-4G), this is difficult to understand. There are so many ways this should/could have been avoided. Every aircrew going through formal training has a training record. Any areas of concern (or in this case, skills that were not instructed) should have been clearly documented. The gaining squadron training shop should have done a thorough scrub of the training records. That would not only have caught his missing refueling training entirely, but also would have caught any areas that he may have had difficulty with and that needed unit instructors to pay closer attention. Any training deficiencies should have been clearly documented so schedulers could not have put him in a mission for which he wasn’t qualified. I can’t imagine why the squadron commander, flight commander and chief of the squadron training shop were not fired.

  5. “we spent some of our own wing funds to have them come up and park tankers up on our ramp here at Shaw and then fly with us multiple times per day with multiple jets,” Col. Lawrence Sullivan told the publication. “Which is a little bit of an anomaly.” The Air Force has ramped up aerial refueling training since the accident.”

    That describes exactly the major root of this systemic problem no matter which branch. I was attached to a Navy training squadron performing maintenance on T2C Buckeyes back in the middle 80’s. Each squadron has limited funds which has to be spread out including parts procurement, squadron level training (including both maintenance and pilot training) on particular types of aircraft in the squadron inventory, and fuel purchases among other things. Run out of dough, you are grounded until the next round of funds becomes available. Can’t have that happen no matter what has to be sacrificed. Nothing has changed.

    Squadron leadership is forced to choose how to apply these funds to during the course of the fiscal year and maintain what is considered expected squadron readiness. In this horrible case, the money, or lack thereof, determined the flying training syllabus which made his first tanker experience at night. As one who was backseat qualified in the Buckeye, I can relate to the incredible pressure to perform, not complain, and then get so task saturated that by the end of the flight, that this poor airman hit the localizer antenna during his final approach.

    What a noble gesture by the squadron commander to NOW apply those funds for what is deemed necessary “additional” daylight tanker training before expecting a trainee to perform an already tough daylight aerial refueling exercise at night. Had this kid not died, the night fueling expectations that played a key role in this accident would be still in action today. Incredible!

    • J Gery: “… it strikes me that the USAF has a systemic cultural problem for this to have happened.”

      Seagull Flyer: “In the AF there were a few Colonels who thought they were (the final authority), but that is another story.”

      Ian O’Connell: “I can’t imagine why the squadron commander, flight commander and chief of the squadron training shop were not fired.”

      Jim Holdeman: “Had this kid not died, the night fueling expectations that played a key role in this accident would be still in action today. Incredible!”

      and. Me: “Senior Officers ought to be swinging from the yard arm over this sad story!”

      If WE — many of whom have served — can see this problem, why can’t Senior Officers who we send to high level military finishing schools see it and act upon it, as well? Answer … because the career minded are more interested in not making waves, satisfying their bosses and getting “attaboys” and medals to complete their upward mobility dossier’s then maintaining good order and control and sometimes saying, “NO!” when appropriate. And — worse — these days they’re more interested in being PC and ‘woke’ then worrying about the things that matter. This young former enlisted USAF pilot was a perfect example of the kind of person we need cultivate and take care of yet — by the mismanagement of the mythical “they” — he wound up becoming a sacrificial lamb to ‘the system.’

      RIP, Lt Schmitz.

      Senior Officers, et al … you guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves!

  6. “What does lack of refueling training have to do with crashing into the approach lights upon landing?”
    “That was my exact thought. Do they think part of the ILS system is used for refueling at night?!!!! Or during the day?”

    If either one of you making these comments had read the Military.com article, you would have never made such uninformed comments.

    This now deceased airman, a Top Gun graduate, an above average F-16 pilot ony 2/3rds through his training syllabus designed to make him squadron ready for an anticipated fall deployment died as a result of terrible decision making by his immediate leadership (which he questioned during his emergency), lack of recent flight hours, lousy deferred maintenance, flight leader incorrectly calculating the risk factors for that sortie, and only 12 hours of night time…total…which included the night time accrued during the accident flight. He is sent off to perform for the first time, day or night, aerial refueling and “a suppression of enemy air defense simulation ” (very intense, highwork load syllabus) in an airplane that had its last ejection seat check in 2017. That seat had maintenance issues which required adherence to what was equivalent to a factory issued mandatory service bulletin which was deferred because of lack of parts due systemic squadron funding issues. The next ejection seat check was deferred 36 months with its scheduled inspection due several months after his ejection seat failed killing him when he hit the ground still strapped into his seat at 129kts with no chute. Investigation revealed numerous failure points of components that would have been caught if the seat was inspected.

    He was unable to take on fuel during the night refueling attempt. At this point, the investigation has not said why he could not take on fuel. His flight commander escorted him back to base because he is now critically short of fuel. He hit the ILS lights because he incorrectly interpreted the approach lights identifying the runway threshold. Very easy to do in a high work load environment, with a heads up display at night, low fuel state, extremely limited night time flight, and being the newbie at that particular AFB. He performed a go around, knowing his landing gear is now damaged and at bingo fuel. When the tower chief and his flight leader suggested he do an arrested landing, he questioned that decision. Lockheed Martin stated that decision would only apply to the landing gear failing to deploy or deploy and be unsafe. Use of the proper checklist resulting in the proper decision according to Lockheed Martin is to eject with the heavily damaged left gear. An ejection from a reasonably high altitude would have set the ejection seat mode into a different sequence which would have worked. However, he ejected when the damaged left MLG gear collapsed making the tailhook miss the cable causing the left wing hit the pavement, losing directional control. A ground ejection sends the seat into a different mode, which is the failure mode addressed in the service bulletin.

    This accident has revealed how bad, bad really is for our present military pilots. This includes both experienced and low time trainees. This accident shows how far the combined US military air forces has degraded due to worn out equipment, lack of flight time, continually reduced flight training hours, operational budget cuts, and unrealistic expectations due to the current military pilot shortage.

    • Jim, I’m reminded of the phrase “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred”

      Military accidents unfortunately happen, especially at night, and when deploying emergency only procedures.

  7. Larry S, Jim Holdeman,

    The questions asked by L Smith and Richard G were entirely appropriate, coming from people who had read this article. The tone of your responses suggests that you were offended by the questions, and I’m not clear why, although perhaps you thought L Smith and Richard G were implying some failure on the part of Lt. Schmitz, and/or that they could have done better. But the same questions struck me, and I certainly wasn’t thinking anything of the sort.

    It’s reasonable to expect that an article on this crash would explain what midair refueling had to do with an accident involving a failed ejection and a landing mishap; it did not. In effect, L Smith and Richard G were pointing out to Russ that his article omitted key facts. Thank you, Jim, for filling in the missing details.

    • YES … I WAS offended. I served 21 years and supported the gestation of the F-16 four different times at Edwards AFB from first flight in 1974 to the late 80’s.

      I’ll ask you the same question I already asked above … how many hours do YOU have in the F-16, Tom ??

      This accident is sorta equivalent to working on an instrument rating and the first time you do it, you fly it solo at night down to minimums or below on a tricky approach and you’re low on fuel. If you guys don’t get that, you should be quiet. There’s a dead young former enlisted airman who realized HIS dream of becoming a USAF aviator and the training system and larger ‘system’ failed him

      Military aviators come back from most missions covered in sweat and worn out for a reason. It’s fun but it’s also very workload intensive. I flew in both the F-16 and F-15, et al, as an engineer at Edwards and I’m here to tell ya’ll — again — it isn’t like flying your C172. This guy was likely nervous, he didn’t get fuel so he was low on fuel and was being escorted to expedite his RTB and blew it. For sure, he played a role in it all but the larger role was the “system” failing him on several accounts. I left the USAF 33 years ago; the USAF of today is a disgrace by comparison IMHO. It’s primarily due to senior officers failing to sometimes say, “NO!” But you can be certain that the USAF will bring all of its toys to Airventure flown by crackerjack pilots, et al, who will wow the crowd and try to get MORE young men to jump through all of the hoops trying to become a military aviator.

      Thanks for the explanation of the seat issues, Jim. Where did you find that info ?

    • Tom,
      The military.com article that was the premise of the Avweb report made it clear how the mid-air refueling, its usual training requirements, or in the case the lack of it, was a key factor in the multitude of factors that was involved in this accident chain.

      “What does lack of refueling training have to do with crashing into the approach lights upon landing?”
      “That was my exact thought. Do they think part of the ILS system is used for refueling at night?!!!! Or during the day?”

      If the reference article in military.com was read, these questions would have never been asked, especially the second one. Without reading the military.com article, the Avweb article did not include all the details germain to the accident chain. That is why Russ Niles included that informative link to military.com. Therefor, I made the comment that the two authors of these questions were indeed uninformed. Both questions suggested by their tone, the now dead pilot lacked basic airmanship.

      Having personally spent 8 years of my life in the US Navy, specifically involved with training pilot candidates to become fleet ready, qualified Naval Aviators, I have first hand experience of the the training regime, its requirements, expectations, and the responsibilities of both the candidate and the military training command. This includes both pilot and maintenance perspectives. In this case, the pilot proved he was living up to all his responsibilities,actually excelling over his excellent counterparts. But the military system did not live up to theirs. That sets my tone, as well as Larry S’s.

      This refueling exercise was his first. First tanking training is never supposed to be done at night. He had only 12 total hours of night flight in his short Air Force career. Without experience,including the lack of night currency, it is very easy to aim at the wrong series of runway threshold lights especially with a head up display. He put that airplane down at a precise location demonstrating good airmanship. But it was the wrong touch down spot. Part of the ongoing investigation is why did he pick that spot for touchdown. He did not commit suicide. He thought what he was doing was right.

      Did the pressure of low fuel play a role in that touchdown zone decision? Absolutely. His flight leader flew formation with him to get him ASAP back to Shaw for an immediate landing. He was fuel critical.

      He knew when he touched down he had made a mistake and successfully performed a touch and go. Now he has to go around, with even less fuel, and make a decision on how he was going to land this now damaged fighter. His flight leader and the tower chief told him to make an arrested landing. He questioned that decision. Likewise, so did Lockheed Martin. His leadership gave him wrong information.

      He landed that now cripple airplane a second time, well within the touchdown zone of that cable, demonstrating good airmanship under extreme pressure. But the gear collapse on the damaged left side, followed by the left wing hitting the ground, losing directional control. He punched out at 129kts and the seat failed to deploy the chute. That chute failure was due to deferred maintenance. That deferred maintenance decision was made almost three years before the accident due to lack of parts, time, and money. Leadership within the military failed this pilot again. And there was plenty more information available with this particular accident, that added a lot of training failure points that contributed to his death.

      Larry, I, and others with military experience get our hackles up when we can clearly see a series of poor leadership decisions, that when combined with shortened training for a variety of reasons (not necessarily good reasons), has lead to increased, needless military pilot fatalities. I have seen and would argue that because this particular young man was an excellent stick, had demonstrated superior airmanship prior to this accident flight as compared to his peers, made him a perfect candidate for bypassing normal protocol of flight training, asking him to do more than he was capable of.

      All of this indeed contributes to my “tone”. And you “broke the code” when you surmised I had a miffed “tone” regarding questions that implied this kid was the key contributor of his own demise because he was lacking basic airmanship. He’s dead because of an ongoing series of military events/decisions that has many and increasing failure points, making an already dangerous choice of professions, even more dangerous. Dismissing those failure points, or simply unaware of them because lack of information, yet suggesting the primary cause of his death was lack of basic airmanship is, in my opinion…uninformed.

      • I agree wholeheartedly 110% with your last assessment, Jim. That’s why I asked these Monday morning quarterbacks how much F-16 time (or ANY fighter time) THEY had. I remember once coming back from a F-16 / LANTIRN flight at low level at night with my legs quivering. Flying those jets, pulling excessive G’s, and doing all the other things required of a SEAD mission aren’t child’s play. Now toss in a BINGO fuel state and the accident chain begins. I’d be willing to bet that some poor egress tech will be blamed for the death in the final accident report; meanwhile, the officers who should be guarding the most important asset in this equation will wind up in the Pentagon getting donuts for some four-star? Were I a part of the decision / accident chain, I don’t know how I would be able to live with myself.

        In retirement, I worked for a large aircraft Company who was rebuilding and upgrading Navy jets in FL. I learned a lot about Navy OPS as part of that process. I noted that many Naval aviators wear towels clipped to their survival gear … they do that for a reason. Coming back from workups on a boat, they always look like they just came out of a shower. You and I know what that is; others … not so much.

        I’ll say it again. The officers who were directly complicit in this accident chain and the ‘system’ that allowed it to happen ought to be ashamed of themselves !!

        Just this afternoon, the CAP has a summer flight camp for high school kids to teach them to fly west of Oshkosh at the location I summer at. One of them struck me as probably just like a young Lt. Schmitz. I was SO impressed that I decided to spend a couple of hours with him while his counterpart was up doing air work with a volunteer instructor. All the while, I was picturing what he’d find when / if he ever gets picked for the USAF Academy and subsequent pilot duties. I sure as hell hope he doesn’t find a situation like that which allowed THIS evolution to occur !!