Avoiding the Blame Game
The pilots briefed the mission, preflighted the two-seat F-16D, and taxied to the end of the runway. There they noticed a problem that would cause them to abort that jet, but “Fuze,” the pilot in the front seat, and “Bogie,” the instructor in the back, moved quickly to get airborne in a spare jet and complete their mission. Unfortunately, in his rush to preflight the second aircraft, Bogie overlooked the switch that controlled the ejection sequence.
They completed the remaining checks, taxied onto the runway, selected afterburner and began the takeoff roll. Shortly after the F-16 broke ground it started vibrating so badly that neither pilot could read the instruments. The fire light merely confirmed what they already knew – the engine was coming apart. They began a left-hand turn to point the jet away from a residential area and were just 200 feet above the ground when the jet rolled uncontrollably to the left – the hydraulics were gone. Fuze belted out the command “BAILOUT–BAILOUT–BAILOUT!” and both pilots pulled their ejection handles within milliseconds of the other.
Once the canopy separated, the rockets that propelled each ejection seat up the rail fired simultaneously with virtually no separation between the two pilots – they were too close. When the front seat parachute housing cover separated, it flew back into the middle of the back seater’s parachute leaving Bogie with an unrecoverable streamer.
Fuze’s chute deployed and instantly brought his forward trajectory to a stop, while Bogie’s empty ejection seat, still moving at 200 Knots, passed within inches of him… followed shortly by Bogie. Through nothing short of a miracle, Bogie’s streamer hooked on to Fuze’s harness. Just seconds after the command to bailout, both pilots landed on the desert floor underneath a single canopy. It was nothing short of a miracle
In combing through the wreckage after the crash, investigators came across the ejection control switch. It should have been set for a sequential ejection of two pilots but Bogie inadvertently left it as it was and either pilot would eject the instant its occupant pulled the handle.
Every pilot has an unspoken fear they’ll make a mistake that will put another at risk, and it was now obvious that Bogie’s misstep could have cost both men their lives. But even after he found out about the mistake, Fuze never uttered a word of blame to Bogie. He merely expressed his gratitude that they had survived.
The flight data recorder from the jet captured every detail of the flight that afternoon – the throttle movements, engine response, aircraft roll rate, pitch attitude and altitude from takeoff to impact was there for the safety investigation team to analyze. What they found in that black box would bring tears to the eyes of every pilot in our wing.
At the moment the two men ejected, the jet was so low and it was rolling so rapidly that two things would’ve happened if they had enjoyed a normal ejection sequence. Bogie would have ejected and received a good parachute and very likely landed without incident. But Fuze’s ejection sequence wouldn’t have started until Bogie’s seat had cleared the jet. By that point, their F-16 would have rolled upside down and Fuze would have been propelled into the desert floor.
If Fuze had lashed out at his back seater for leaving the switch in the wrong position, he would have left an indelible mark on the man whose mistake had saved his life. Mistakes and missteps will be with us throughout our lives and while the repercussions and follow-on effects may seem apparent at first glance, it may be quite a while before the real cause and effects are fully realized. Before you cast blame and say something you’ll undoubtedly regret following one of those moments, pause long enough to rise up out of your cockpit and collect your thoughts before you engage. You’ll get a tip on how to do just that in the next edition of From the Cockpit.