The Famous Thunderbirds Demonstration Team Loses Pilot As F-16 Crashes In Nevada

This is the fourth incident involving U.S. military aircraft in less than 48 hours.

Thunderbirds F-16 during the Daytona 500 race in February 2018.
Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Images

This is the fourth incident involving U.S. military aircraft in less than 48 hours.

On April 4, near the Nevada Test and Training Range and approximately at 10:30 a.m., an F-16 fighter belonging to the famous U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team crashed during a routine training. Sadly, the pilot was killed, the Drive reports.

The Air Force is currently withholding the identity of the pilot. There is also an investigation underway to ascertain the causes of the accident, according to CNN.

This is the third such incident involving the Thunderbirds in less than 24 months. In June 2016 one F-16 crashed near Colorado Springs after a flyover during a graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy. The pilot managed to eject.

A year later, in June 2017, a two-seat F-16D overrun the runway at Ohio’s Dayton International Airport, overturning and injuring both crewmembers.

As a result of the most recent mishap, the team canceled its show for the next weekend at March Air Reserve Base.

The Thunderbirds were formed in 1953 and are the third oldest formal aerial demonstration team in the world. The elements of this team are some of the best pilots in the U.S. Air Force, and they operate a dozen Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 52 fighter jets, of the single-seat C and double-seat D models.

Last November, the commander of the formation at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Heard, was relieved from his post and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Walsh.

This crash marks the fourth such incident involving U.S. military aircraft in the span of 48 hours, and the third airframe loss. It is also the fifth fatality.

According to the Aviationist, last Tuesday an American CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed north of the Mexico-California border, near the city of El Centro, killing the four people aboard. The incident happened at 2:35 p.m., and the aircraft belonged to the 3rd Air Wing of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Meanwhile, on Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, a USMC AV-8B Harrier II jump jet crashed during takeoff from the Djibouti Ambouli International Airport, around 4:00 p.m. local time. The pilot managed to eject and is said to have walked to an ambulance. The jet was part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and operated from the USS Iwo Jima assault ship. It was taking part in the Alligator Dagger exercise, which started this week.

Another CH-53E was also damaged in the same day while landing near Arta Beach, Djibouti.

The U.S. military forces are involved in several intensive campaigns across the world, where combat aircraft are used rather intensely. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, such complex machines are bound to incur operation issues, from mechanical malfunctions to pilot mishaps. These are the risks the servicemen and servicewomen take on a daily basis.

Incidentally, most of the air assets used by American pilots are the so-called legacy units, essentially aircraft developed and put into service during the Cold War and which still require a dedicated replacement. The F-16 and the Harrier both belong to this class of aircraft.

CH-53E during a joint exercise in the Philippines Sea.
CH-53E helicopter, similar to those that crashed in the U.S. and Djibouti last Tuesday. Aaron Favila / AP Images

Plans are being put in place to attempt to improve the availability of current models while the F-35 stealth fighter slowly comes into service, but they will only serve as stop-gap measures at best. Such programs need to cope with the lack of budget necessary to put them all in motion.

According to the Drive, the CH-53 fleet is suffering the same issue, with the constant use in conflict areas having severely beleaguered the airframes. Like the fighters, this massive helicopter is also waiting for a replacement, which will be an improved version of itself in the form of the CH-53K King Stallion. However, such acquisitions are still to happen, and the current, tired, airframes will need to attend to the needs of the Marines for a while longer.

Due to their nature, aerial display teams like the Thunderbirds also co-exist with the perils of operating high-performance aircraft. But the very experienced and highly professional pilots that take part in such formations work to make them as safe as possible, for themselves and the people on the ground.

It is yet to be known what effect the crash from last Wednesday will have on the remaining shows planned for the current year. The Thunderbirds only performed in Melbourne, Florida, in March, and made a flyby during the Dayton 500 race in February.