The US Air Force concluded in an accident investigation report that a fatal Lockheed Martin F-16CM Thunderbird crash on 4 April was the result of the pilot suffering loss of consciousness, caused by an 8.56g manoeuvre.
The mishap took place during a practice of the “High Show” version of the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration in the south part of the Nevada Test and Training Range near Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Maj Stephen Del Bagno, a former F-35A pilot, died in the crash.
Prior to loss of consciousness and near the scheduled end of the aerial demonstration training flight, the pilot spent approximately 22s in inverted flight between 5,500 and 5,700ft above the ground level, during the “High Bomb Burst Rejoin” manoeuvre. After transitioning into a descending half-loop manoeuvre, also called a Split-S, the pilot experienced a gravity-induced loss of consciousness, became completely incapacitated for a period of time, and was fatally injured on impact without an ejection attempt.
Lockheed Martin’s airborne collision avoidance system (Auto GCAS) is supposed to prevent aircraft crashes caused by a pilot’s loss of consciousness by automatically overriding the flight controls and steering the aircraft away from the ground. Lockheed Martin’s airborne collision avoidance system (Auto GCAS) is supposed to prevent aircraft crashes caused by a pilot’s loss of consciousness by automatically overriding the flight controls and steering the aircraft away from the ground. However, the software was not uploaded on the F-16 Thunderbird that crashed in April.
“Auto GCAS has successfully saved several F-16 pilot lives, however it is not currently installed in F-16 Block 52s flown by the Thunderbirds,” said the USAF. “The Air Force will be installing this upgrade in all Thunderbird jets in November 2018, following the completion of the current season."
Lockheed Martin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Updated with a statement from the USAF.