Botched Formation Approach Caused Fatal T-38 Crash, Investigation Shows
A botched formation approach caused two T-38s to crash upon landing in November 2021 at Laughlin AFB, Texas, shortly after the U.S. Air Force had banned formation landings of the aircraft because of another fatal crash.
An Air Force Accident Investigation Board report into the crash says the pilots’ failure to communicate during the maneuver prompted the T-38s to try to land simultaneously while not maintaining visibility of each other. The crash was the third major incident involving the T-38 in 2021 and the eighth since 2018, according to service data.
According to the report’s narrative, the two T-38s took off at about 10 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2021, for a local formation flight with one student pilot and two instructor pilots. The plan called for the student pilot’s aircraft to lead a low approach to Laughlin with one aircraft to land, depending on fuel levels.
During the final approach, the T-38 with an instructor at the controls “called off” the other, but both attempted to land. The instructor’s T-38 ended up below the other aircraft on final approach in a position where neither could see the other and touched down first. The T-38 flown by the student pilot landed on top of the first, with its landing gear crashing into the first aircraft’s rear stabilizer. Both aircraft became uncontrollable and were destroyed. The pilot in the first aircraft was able to escape. The student pilot and instructor in his back seat attempted to eject, but the sequence was “interrupted” because the aircraft was inverted, the report says. The student pilot was killed and the instructor sustained multiple life-threatening injuries.
Investigators said the crash was caused by the instructor in the student pilot’s aircraft failing to communicate, and the instructor in the first aircraft failing to verify which aircraft would land. The backseat instructor did not recognize a dangerous situation and failed to intervene to prevent the aircraft from crashing into the other.
The crash came after a significant change to the T-38 syllabus. In May 2020, Air Education and Training Command stopped the use of formation landings for T-38s after a November 2019 crash that killed an instructor and a student pilot. An investigation into that incident found that shortly before the flight, the squadron’s director of operations was urging the elimination of formation landings because the service’s combat air forces no longer practice them and they are dangerous.
Formation approaches are a syllabus requirement for T-37 training, outlining four ways they can be accomplished: with both aircraft performing a low approach, a “split to land” on different runways, a visual meteorological condition drag with one aircraft 3,000 ft. behind the lead, and one aircraft landing and the other performing a low approach. The November 2021 crash happened during the last method, and the report says there is no defined guidance or standards at Laughlin or in Pilot Instructor Training outlining how it is done. Because of this lack of standards, the two instructors in the jets used conflicting techniques and neither were clear who would land first.
The Formation Commander failed to brief how the maneuver would be executed.
When the trailing aircraft lost sight of the lead aircraft the pilot of the trailing aircraft failed to execute a "breakout" (in this case a missed approach).
The instructor pilot failed to direct a missed approach when visual contact was lost.
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” A. G. Lamplugh
Tens of thousands of USAF aviators have made formation landings in the T-38 for over half a century. For the Laughlin DO to decide that this maneuver is now "dangerous" says more about either the quality of student pilots or the training currently being delivered than it does about the "safety" of formation landings.
One can agree that not every pilot trainee will excel at formation flying just as all cadets do not become fighter pilots. But eliminating formation approaches/landings seems counter intuitive to me. I have to agree also with GWROBLE and Chas.Monroe. Formation landings were pretty routine and often back in the prehistoric time period of Air Defense Command. And the F-102 was a little bigger that the T-38. Last I would have to admit that formation flying was something that I really enjoyed, whether 2,3 or 4 ship formations. Learning precision flying is aided and abetted with the practices of formation flying. Ground school, attentive instructor pilots and preflight briefings would seem a better solution rather that taking the easy way out and banning formation landings.
I went through UPT at Laughlin over 50 years ago. We did formation landings in both the T-38 and the T-37. And in the series of fighters that I flew in afterward - F-102, F-105, A-7, F-16. It is a necessary skill if you are going to fly high performance aircraft.
Likewise, there have been times when it was necessary to fly a formation approach and landing - my wingman lost his avionics, or had a view-obliterating bird strike, or I lost all airspeed and altimeter data, I was running out of fuel and could not wait for the pattern sequencing, etc.
The Air Force pilot training program used to exist to prepare you for all eventualities, all emergencies, all contingencies. In the last 50 years from my perspective it has focused on increasing risk avoidance. We used to practice T-38 heavy weight single engine failure on takeoff - a truly risky procedure, but necessary for the day it would happen for real. They stopped that in 1970 after a fatal. Before all the magic of glass cockpits and inertials and GPS, we did things like point-to-point navigation with round dials and dead reckoning. We actually learned raw stick and rudder skills. I would not have been able to fly a no-flap, unboosted slab landing in the F-105 (235 knot approach speed) without those basic skills I learned in the old UPT program.
Now the focus of the program is not to do anything risky that might wreck a career with an accident blemish. The Air Force is now planning (actually, doing it a test base) to award wings at the halfway point of the UPT program, before you even get in the T-38 (or new T-7). Sorry, but that person is not a qualified Air Force pilot.
This accident was in UPT. But we seem to be developing skills, or rather, lack of skills, that will be reflected in higher accident rates in operational aircraft down the road. If you want to see the end result of these failings and insufficiencies, look at commercial aviation, where we are seeing air carrier crashes with unskilled pilots facing untrained-for emergencies like icing (Buffalo commuter), failed pitot tubes (Air France in South Atlantic) and runaway trim (737 max).