An investigation into a deadly T-38 Talon jet crash at Laughlin Air Force Base in West Texas that left two pilots injured and another dead last year was released Wednesday, revealing that miscommunication and instructor error were to blame for the incident.
An Air Force spokeswoman said that the service is changing its policy on formation landings as a result of the incident and investigation.
The new findings from the Air Force’s Accident Investigation Board analyzed what led up to the Nov. 19, 2021, death of 2nd Lt. Anthony D. Wentz, 23, a student pilot in the 47th Flying Training Wing from Falcon, Colorado.
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Wentz and instructor pilots were attempting to do a formation approach, where two jets fly side-by-side before one of the aircraft touches down on the tarmac.
Wentz’s nose landing gear hit the other plane’s left horizontal stabilizer, and “both aircraft were rendered uncontrollable and subsequently destroyed.”
Wentz and an instructor in his plane experienced an interrupted ejection sequence due to the aircraft being upside down, causing multiple life-threatening injuries for the teacher and fatal injuries for the student pilot, according to the report. The pilot in the other aircraft received minor injuries.
In response to the crash in Texas, Capt. Lauren Woods, a spokeswoman for the Air Education and Training Command, said in an emailed statement that policies regarding formation landings are being changed once again, following earlier changes after another formation landing crash in Oklahoma in 2019.
Under the changes, one aircraft will be able to land while another performs a low approach. The Air Force also raised the minimum altitude for the maneuver, standardized radio procedures and emphasized deconfliction practices “to reduce the possibility of confusion about which aircraft will land,” Woods said.
In the 2019 incident, Lt. Col. John “Matt” Kincade and 2nd Lt. Travis B. Wilkie died when their T-38s crashed during a formation landing at Vance Air Force Base.
Shortly after the incident in Oklahoma, Air Education and Training Command banned formation landings. But pilots were still able to practice the formation as long as one of the two aircraft didn’t land as they came toward the runway.
The T-38 has been in the military’s fleet since the 1960s. The twin-engine supersonic jet has been used to train pilots in the armed forces, as well as NASA.
In the November crash, Wentz was flying his fourth formation approach with a teacher in the backseat when they were coming in for a landing. Another instructor flew the other jet alone, according to the Air Force’s report.
The pilots “failed to communicate” and “failed to verify” which jet would land; the teacher also “failed to recognize a precarious situation developing,” the report stated.
Additionally, that morning, the instructor who flew with Wentz “missed the pre-briefing and discussion” regarding who would land first, according to the report. It was later discussed with the teacher again during the formal flight briefing.
Fellow student pilots told investigators that Wentz “was highly thought of and respected,” as well as a “hard worker who inspired other students to work hard and better themselves,” the report detailed.
Since the 1960s, there have been 86 pilot deaths caused by mishaps, according to Air Force Safety Center data.
Editor’s Note: The following story has been updated to clarify that during the Texas mishap, the pilots were conducting a formation approach, and during the Oklahoma incident, the pilots were attempting a formation landing. Additionally, the story has added the detail that an instructor who missed the pre-briefing about a training exercise did hear about it during the formal briefing.
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
Related: Air Force: 1 Pilot Killed, 2 Injured in Crash Involving 2 Jet Trainers From Laughlin AFB
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