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Pilot errors, leadership decisions, ejection-seat malfunction blamed in deadly F-16 crash at Shaw AFB

David Schmitz, then a staff sergeant, poses in 2014 at at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

JACOB JIMENEZ/U.S. AIR FORCE

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — Pilot mistakes, an ejection-seat failure and poor leadership decisions are to blame for the June crash of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., investigators concluded in a report released Monday.

Air Force 1st Lt. David Schmitz, 32, was killed at about 11 p.m. June 30 in the fighter jet crash as he attempted to land at Shaw during a nighttime training flight. The investigators found Schmitz was upset after having failed his first-ever attempt at air-to-air refueling and misread a lighting system leading him toward Shaw’s runway, starting a chain of events that would lead him to attempt to eject from the aircraft.

Schmitz, assigned to Shaw’s 77th Fighter Squadron, was one of four pilots participating in the nighttime qualification operation, which called for the jets to refuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker before conducting a simulated attack against enemy air defenses. But, low on fuel after he was unable to connect with the air tanker about two hours into the mission, Schmitz was forced to return to Shaw, according to the report that was finalized last month and made public Monday.

As his aircraft neared the base, Schmitz’s misreading of the approach lighting system guiding him to the runway brought the jet in too low. The aircraft struck an antenna some 1,000 feet short of the runway “severely damaging the left main landing gear,” which was the primary cause of the crash, according to the report. But there were other critical failures, investigators said.

Among them was a failure of Schmitz’s leaders to ensure he had conducted air-to-air refueling during the day before attempting it at night, which is Air Force policy, according to Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command.

“That didn’t occur for this officer, and when we have oversight breakdowns or failures of critical egress systems, it is imperative that we fully understand what transpired, meticulously evaluate risk, and ensure timely and effective mitigations are in place to reduce or eliminate future mishaps,” Kelly said in a statement in which he called the incident “a tragic reminder of the inherent risks of fighter aviation.”

Investigators said the pilot’s leadership was unaware of that policy.

After damaging his left landing gear, Schmitz’s jet briefly touched down on the ground in front of the runway before he abandoned the landing attempt to try again. He had about 30 minutes of fuel remaining in the jet, investigators said. Schmitz consulted with an official in the control tower, the supervisor of flying, and the lead pilot on the training operation, who accompanied Schmitz back to Shaw and observed the damage from his own F-16.

Those officials determined Schmitz should follow checklist guidelines for landing the plane with the left gear “unsafe [or] up.” The flying supervisor warned the pilot that he might ultimately need to eject “if conditions are not favorable.” They decided Schmitz would attempt an arrested landing, in which the pilot would slow his landing by hooking a cable at the front of the runway.

Investigators found the flying supervisor failed to contact the plane’s manufacturer Lockheed Martin, which staffs a 24/7 technical assistance hotline to field questions about emergency situations. Had the supervisor contacted Lockheed, the company could have warned the checklist that the officials had been using was only designed to work if the landing gear did not deploy and did not apply to “a damaged or hanging” gear. During the probe, Lockheed flight engineers told investigators that there were no standard operations for dealing with the type of damage that Schmitz faced. They said had the supervisor of flying contacted the hotline, Lockheed would have urged a controlled ejection, instead of a cable landing, which had been successful in two similar past incidents.

Ultimately, Schmitz was forced to eject after the aircraft’s tailhook made contact with the cable, but did not hook it, according to the report. The jet continued down the runway about 1,100 feet and the left wing struck the ground just before Schmitz activated his ejection seat. The plane continued down the runway, flipping “nose-over-tail” as it veered left off the runway coming to a rest upside down. The $25 million aircraft was destroyed, Air Force officials said.

Schmitz’s ejection seat failed to deploy a parachute. He hit the ground still in his seat, dying instantly.

Investigators found a digital system that controls the sequence of events after the pilot initiates an ejection failed to trigger several devices that should automatically deploy to stabilize the seat and launch the parachute.

The Air Force’s lead investigator, Maj. Gen. Randal Efferson, wrote in the report that the issue was likely caused by a “lack of available parts” to address a “known problem” with the ejection seat, which the Air Force initially sought to fix in 2017.

At the time of his death, Air Force officials said Schmitz was realizing his dream by recently becoming a fighter pilot. He earned his pilot licenses at 17 years old before enlisting in the Air Force, Col. Lawrence Sullivan, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing, said at the time.

He served as a loadmaster on a C-17 Globemaster II transport and cargo aircraft before attending officer candidate school and earning a commission.

Schmitz went on to earn the Top Gun Award in his Introduction to the Fighter Fundamentals course, leading his class in air-to-air combat. Investigators found he was “lauded for his work ethic” in training and was graded a “slightly above average” flyer in more recent mission qualification training. He was nearing 100 hours piloting an F-16 at the time of his death.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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