The two Tulsa-based fighter pilots who survived a mid-air collision in Kansas last fall are back on flight status.
The incident happened on October 20, 2014 near Moline, Kansas. Two F-16C jets with the 138th Fighter Wing based at Tulsa International Airport collided during a training flight. One pilot ejected and his jet crashed, the other pilot managed to return to Tulsa even though his jet was badly damaged.
Neither the U.S. Air Force nor the Oklahoma National Guard has released the identities of the pilots.
Colonel Max Moss, public affairs officer for the Oklahoma National Guard, said the pilots were grounded for several weeks after the incident. He said they both received additional training and recertification and are back to flying F-16s.
According to the official report on the crash released Friday, February 20, 2015, the pilot of the jet that crashed had 2,628.5 flight hours, with 2,407.7 hours in the F-16. He was rated as an Instructor Pilot and Evaluator Pilot.
The pilot of the jet that returned to Tulsa was a student pilot who had a total of 287.2 hours of flight time with 106.2 hours in the F-16.
“It takes about three years to become a combat-qualified F-16 pilot,” said Col. Moss.
Colonel Moss said the training includes a year of undergraduate training where the student learns the fundamentals of flight. The student then spends a significant amount of time in the T-38 training jet learning tactical flight maneuvers.
The student then moves to Mission Qualification Upgrade Training which takes place at the unit where the student is assigned. Colonel Moss said that's the training the pilot was doing when the collision happened last October.
According to the accident report, the two jets that collided were part of a flight of three jets that had flown to southeast Kansas specifically to practice air combat maneuvering. They were flying in airspace called the Eureka Military Operating Area, which is reserved for the kind of flying the three jets were doing.
The three jets had taken off at 2:03 p.m. on October 20, 2015. Once in the reserved airspace, the first two jets flew together while the third jet would act as an adversary, approaching the other two from an unknown direction so the first two jets could pretend to shoot it down.
The accident report says the collision happened during the second engagement. The first two jets, called Mishap Aircraft 1 and Mishap Aircraft 2 or MA1 and MA2, were flying at 14,600 feet when they saw the third jet, MA3, approaching them from the north.
The report says Mishap Pilot 1 radioed Mishap Pilot 2 to bracket the third aircraft, which meant to split up so that the adversary jet would fly between them. The third jet then made a left turn. According to the report, the student pilot (Mishap Pilot 2), lost visual contact with MA1 and didn't radio that fact on the radio. Also according to the report, the instructor pilot (Mishap Pilot 1), saw the student pilot's jet, but thought it was making a right turn to follow the third jet, when in fact it was turning left toward the instructor pilot.
A few seconds later the instructor pilot realized the student pilot was turning toward him and tried to avoid a collision, but it was too late. The right wing of the student pilot's jet sliced into the right wing and horizontal tail of his jet, causing his jet to go out of control.
Stunned by the collision and dealing with smoke in his cockpit, the instructor pilot told investigators the student pilot's radio call to bail out convinced him he should eject.
He received minor injuries from the ejection and when he landed on the ground in his parachute. His F-16 landed on its belly with almost no forward movement. The other jet, missing about five feet of its right wing, landed safely in Tulsa, after another F-16 that happened to be in the area flew alongside so its pilot could inspect the damage
The report says the loss was $22,440,842 for the crashed jet, an estimated $2,334,990 to repair the damaged jet and $50,000 to remove contaminated soil at the crash site.
Colonel Moss said the damaged jet is undergoing an engineering analysis by Lockheed-Martin to determine if it's worth repairing. He said there are several steps the engineers have to take to see if it can meet the rigors of air combat.
Colonel Moss said the risk of an accident like this one is why the Air National Guard does training in the Eureka Military Operating Area, which is located of sparsely-populated southeast Kansas.
“This is a very dangerous business. We have the best pilots in the world, but we assume some risk to become combat mission ready-rated.”