Loose checklist may have caused deadly Greek F-16 crash in Spain
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 30, 2015
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — A loose checklist inside the cockpit most likely doomed a Greek F-16 that crashed seconds after takeoff during a multinational exercise in Spain, investigators have determined six months after the fiery accident that killed the two pilots and nine others.
A manual knob in the cockpit that controls the trim tab on the tail rudder was inadvertently turned all the way to the right, causing the plane to roll uncontrollably to the right seconds after takeoff, according to the safety investigation board report, released this week by the French Defense Ministry. The plane slammed into parked planes on the ground causing a huge fire.
Some time before the two-seat F-16D took off on Jan. 27, “the yaw trim was set to the maximum right deflection, drastically affecting the aerodynamics of the aircraft during takeoff,” the report said.
Though there are safety guards mounted on either side of the yaw trim switch to prevent unintentionally moving it, investigators believe one of three loose flight checklists in the cockpit must have jammed the knob all the way to the right.
The checklists were to be placed in the cockpit’s stowage compartment, but the lead pilot stored his flight bag in the compartment instead, the report said.
Physical tests performed by the safety investigation board members determined that while it’s difficult to inadvertently turn the knob, an object such as a checklist — they are usually laminated — pushed between the yaw knob and the safety guard “can cause the same roll and yaw trim movements as recorded” in the aircraft.
The F-16 is not equipped with a system that warns pilots when the yaw switch is turned too far in either direction prior to or during takeoff.
The Hellenic Air Force jet crashed about 7.8 seconds after takeoff, as the askew trim tab forced the plane to bank hard to the right and pulled its nose down. The lead pilot’s “left control stick inputs were insufficient to cease the right roll,” the report said.
The lead pilot “had to react in the unforgiving altitude of no more than 60 feet,” the report said. “The fact that the landing gear was left in the down position can be considered as a clear indication of the surprising nature of the problem
With little time to react, the pilots ejected seconds before the plane smashed into a crowded tarmac at Los Llanos Air Base in southeastern Spain.
The accident created a massive fireball that was visible from tens of kilometers away.
Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States were involved in the investigation.
They were among the countries participating in the Tactical Leadership Program, a multinational effort formed in 1978 to enhance key leadership and mission planning skills needed for NATO operations.
The Greek pilots killed were Panagiotis Laskaris, 36, and Athanasios Zagas, 32. Both were experienced pilots.
Nine French airmen on the ground suffered severe burns and died. Seven other French airmen and 10 Italian military personnel were seriously injured. U.S. Air Force officials said at the time that eight U.S. airmen with Lakenheath’s 492nd Fighter Squadron suffered minor injuries, including scrapes, burns and smoke inhalation. One of those airmen, Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz, received the Airman’s Medal earlier this year for dragging three French airmen out of the fire.
Eight additional combat planes from three countries were destroyed or damaged. An F-15E from Lakenheath was slightly damaged.
Airmen of the 48th Fighter Wing pay their respects alongside NATO allies at a memorial service honoring fallen members of the French Air Force at Los Llanos Air Base, Albacete, Spain, Jan. 29, 2015. Eleven airmen from the Greek and French air forces lost their lives after a Greek F-16 crashed during a NATO exercise. A safety investigation found that a loose checklist inside the cockpit was the likely cause of the crash.
ERIN BABIS/U.S. AIR FORCE