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09 May 2014

Ejection 0.8 Seconds Before Impact

The incident happened in 2003 but I only just saw the photograph and video on /r/aviation last week.

Thunderbird no. 6 ejection at Mountain Home airshow in 2003. Photo by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III – Still Photographer, USAF

This looks like a photoshopped picture or a stunt still from of a Hollywood movie but it is 100% legitimate.

The photograph was taken at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where the Thunderbirds were putting on an aerial display. The photographer snapped this photograph of 31-year-old Captain Chris Stricklin from the tower, capturing the exact moment when Captain Stricklin ejected from the F-16. Stricklin ejected less than a second before the F16 hit the ground.

The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the United States Airforce, the equivalent of the Red Arrows of the UK Royal Air Force or the Blue Angels of the US Navy.

The Thunderbirds were formed in 1917 as an operational squadron. In 1953 they became the aerobatic display team in 1953, taking the name Thunderbirds from the southwestern US folklore around Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. They became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team in 1956 but had to stop after the FAA banned all supersonic flight at air shows.

They tour the US and the world to perform air demonstrations but they apparently are able to rapidly integrate into an operational fighter unit. They fly F16 Fighting Falcons.

Their standard demonstration is documented on Wikipedia:

From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off roll with the words “Thunderbirds, let’s run em up!” being retransmitted from the team leader’s mic through the PA system for the crowd to hear.

Diamond: Historically, as Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off, the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation. Thanks to the 2009 upgrade to the Block 52, the Diamond now has more than enough thrust to continue to climb straight up into their first maneuver, the Diamond Loop.

Solos: Thunderbird 5 takes to the air next performing a clean low altitude aileron roll followed by 6 who performs a split S climbing in a near vertical maneuver rolling over and diving back toward show center pulling up just above the runway and exiting in the opposite direction.

Much of the Thunderbirds’ display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of 8 different formations: The Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and the Five Card. The arrowhead performs maneuvers in tight formation as close as 18 inches Fuselage to Canopy separation. They perform formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. All maneuvers are done at speeds of 450-500+ mph.

Stricklin was flying Thunderbird 6, performing the Split S manoeuvre as a part of his solo performance with the Thunderbirds.

The Split S (known in the RAF as the Half Roll and in the Luftwaffe as the Abschwung) is a dog-fighting technique used to disengage from combat. The pilot half-rolls his aircraft so that he’s flying upside down and then dives away in a descending half-loop, pulling out so that he’s flying straight and level in the opposite direction.

At the Mountain Home airshow as that Captain Stricklin did not have enough vertical space to pull out of the half-loop, leading to his last-second ejection. He had performed the Split S manoeuvre over two hundred times.

The astounding photograph was taken by a professional photographer at the control tower and was swiftly leaked to the public despite the fact that the military immediately locked down into an investigation. The photographer posted on the f-16.net message boards.

Thunderbird crash photo (head-on)

I have noticed all over the internet the shot I had taken of the Thunderbird crash at Mountain Home AFB, ID and though I am not at liberty to share the photo; it is out there. I would like to end some speculation and let you know the photo is real.

I’m a Still Photographer for the USAF and I was stationed at MHAFB during the air show. I was on the catwalk of the tower at Mtn Home along with another photog (video) and about seven other (military) spectators. I have shot the T-birds from the tower before and I was pretty excited to do it again (the sky was perfect blue). I followed Thunderbird 6 from takeoff and watched as he pulled into his maneuver. I then noticed something seemed to be wrong, his direction was a little off; he was pulling out and heading right towards the tower. At this point I figured two things: 1. He’s either going to fly past this tower and we’ll feel the heat or 2. This is going to be ugly… I waited for the aircraft to level and clicked the shutter, what I saw through the lens will never go away…

At the same time as I shot I seen a flash of light and horrific sound. I was shooting on high speed continuous and the next couple frames were a ball of fire and my feet, right before I ran. We all ran to the other side of the tower, I tried to get everyone in along with my partner and finally made it in myself. By the time we got inside the 16 had stopped sliding and rested about 100 ft in front of the tower. I then continued documenting the work of our base firefighters as they put out the flames. It was an experience and though I can’t officially make any comments to the matter, I would like to say Capt Stricklin saved lives… enough said.

For those who are wondering the image is not cleared for public release.

Also for those fellow photogs I was shooting with a D1x with a 300mm, 2.8 @ 1000 and 2000

Thanks,
SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
Still Photographer, USAF

The photograph was officially released a few days later, along with the video from the cockpit just before the crash.

Redditors have pointed out that his left arm twitches twice towards the eject lever before committing to the action.

Captain Stricklin sustained only minor injuries. The $20.4 million F16 was destroyed.

This video shows the view from the crowd:

The investigation results were released as a press release a year later:

PRESS RELEASE — Secretary of the Air Force, Directorate of Public Affairs

Release No. 0121045 – Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – Pilot error caused a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft to crash shortly after takeoff at an air show Sept. 14 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

According to the accident investigation board report released today, the pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” manoeuvre. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S manoeuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground — just eight –tenths of a second prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

Also, the board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement for demonstration pilots to convert mean sea level and above ground level altitudes and performing a manoeuvre with a limited margin of error.

For more information, contact the ACC Public Affairs office at (757) 764-5007 or e-mail acc.pam@langley.af.mil.

The QNH (sea-level altitude) vs QFE (altitude above the ground) is thus seen as a contributing factor.

Stricklin’s home base at Nellis is at 2,000 feet whereas Mountain Home is at 3,000 feet, so the altitude he selected would have been correct at his home base.

The contributing factor of requiring pilots to convert sea-level altitude information to altitude above ground for radio calls was immediately dealt with by the Air Force. Thunderbird pilots now call out MSL (Mean Sea Level) altitudes rather than AGL (Above Ground Level) altitudes and must climb an additional one thousand feet before performing the Split S manoeuvre.

A bystander reported that after the ejection, Stricklin stood silently by the canopy of the aircraft. Then he threw his helmet at the ground and stomped over to the wreckage. He knew that his time as a Thunderbird pilot was over.

However, I was pleased to see that in 2009, Stricklin was commended for his work on safety programmes in the USAF:

2009: CSAF Individual Safety Award – Lt. Col. Christopher Stricklin, 14th Flying Training Wing, Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.
Colonel Stricklin led and managed flight, ground, and weapon safety programs for 3,000 personnel, including 20 essential safety personnel who provided over 3,120 annual hours of on-call service. As a direct result of his efforts, flight mishaps were reduced in nearly every category; down 50 percent in Class A, 70 percent in Class C, 44 percent in Class E, and 50 percent in Controlled Movement Area Violations.

It makes sense to me; if I’d been that close to smashing into the ground, I’d be pretty thoughtful about flight safety too!

21 October 2011

Amazing Aerobatic Video with Vicky Benzing

I first saw this video of Vicky Benzing performing aerobatics on the Love Air Aviation Blog. What I love about this video is the perspective, that we are right there with Benzing flying the plane, rather than just a view of the plane itself from the ground.

Vicky Benzing Aerobatics – What a performance! | Love Air Aviation Blog

To say that there are some very skilful aerobatic pilots in the world today would be an understatement.

Such pilots are in every way like athletes; they need to be physically fit, mentally agile, and emotionally balanced in order to give their best performance. Unlike athletes though they also need to have an intimate knowledge of the machine in which they perform. Like Formula 1 drivers they have to know how to obtain the best performance from the chosen vehicle without flying outside of the envelope.

Watching world class aerobatics is a joy. Here’s a clip of Vicky Benzing giving it her all.

And you get to listen to Bob Seger at the same time.

Vicky Benzing Aerobatics from TimnEvan on Vimeo.

Benzing is a pilot, skydiver, aerobatic competitor and Reno racer. In an interview on Evan Flies, she spoke about learning to fly.

Evan flies – Vicky Benzing

I got my private pilot’s license when I had 40 hours. So I went to the airport and rented Amelia Reid’s Luscombe, trained in that for about 10 hours, and I got on an airline and went to the East Coast and bought this airplane.I flew it back by myself and I flew for about 10 hours so then I had 60 hours and it took me about 40 hours to fly across the United States and then I had about 100 hours. It was a fantastic trip. I was 24 years old then. I just took it a few hours at a time, low and slow, and when I left New Jersey my radio went out so I had to land at uncontrolled fields, which was just fine because I brought my sleeping bag and my tent, which I forgot tent poles for, so I just planned to sleep under the wing across the United States and I did!

After I learned to fly in the Taylorcraft, I took a ten hour course with Amelia Reid in her Citabria, and that was really, really fun. I learned how to do loops and rolls and Immlemans. Amelia was quite a character. She would fall asleep in the airplane and I had heard this about primary training. The Citabria is a nice airplane but it’s tandem, so the pilot sits in front and the instructor sits in the back and whenever you did something she didn’t like, she’d reach up there and whack you, and then if she was comfortable with your flying, she would fall asleep and I would be up there doing loops and Immlemans and stuff and she’d be in the backseat sleeping, and it wasn’t till I would come in to Reid Hillview, and cut the power off on final, that she would wake up in the back seat because she’d hear the engine change.

Benzing’s airplane is a modified German-built single seat Extra 300S, powered by a Lycon customized experimental AEIO540 engine and a Hartzell propeller.

I can’t resist one more video. This is a more traditional view, also filmed by TimnEvan, showing Vicky Benzing in action:

Vicky Benzing promo from TimnEvan on Vimeo.

Wow. When I grow up, I want to be just like her.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like some of my other posts about aerobatic pilots:

26 August 2011

The Red Arrows

My heart broke when I saw the update on the Royal Air force Aerobatic Team website. Until the last, I’d hoped that Flight Lieutenant Egging had managed to eject safely. And then the RED 4 Messages of Condolence page appeared.

It is with sadness that the MOD must confirm the death of Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging of the Royal Air Force Aerobatics Team (The Red Arrows).

Flight Lieutenant Egging was killed when his Hawk T1 aircraft – Red 4 – crashed around 1km South East of Bournemouth Airport at 1350 on Saturday 20 August 2011.

The accident is being investigated and although rumours abound, there is yet no hard information as to what went wrong.

Yesterday in the The Red Arrows Team News, the RAF announced that the Red Arrows would fly back to RAF Scrampton today. However, this morning there was rain and a low cloud base at RAF Scampton and so the flight was cancelled in hopes of better weather tomorrow. A nice reminder that it happens even to the best pilots.

The team will be resume training next week after their return to Scramptom. The Red Arrows have eight-man displays already in their repetoire, in order to go on in case a pilot is unable to fly, so they may resume yet their public display schedule.

Here’s the best of the videos I found of the Red Arrows display at the Quebec International Airshow last year:

Look at them there. They are flying six feet apart. I won’t even get that close to another plane on the ground when I’m trying to park on the apron!

The RAF explain how the Red Arrows were established on their Team History page

The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of Royal Air Force jet aerobatic display teams. By the mid-60s almost every Flying Training School, and several operational squadrons, had their own teams. So much time, effort and money was being expended on these non-established tasks that the Royal Air Force eventually decided to disband them all and form a single, full-time professional team.

Thus, in 1964, the Red Pelicans flying six Jet Provost T Mk 4s became the first team to represent the Royal Air Force as a whole. In that same year a team of five yellow Folland Gnat jet trainers, known as the Yellowjacks, was formed at No 4 Flying Training School at Royal Air Force Valley in north Wales, led by Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones. The following year Jones was posted to the Central Flying School (CFS) to form the Red Arrows. The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the formal name of the Red Arrows, began life at RAF Fairford in Glouces­tershire, then a satellite of CFS. Initially there were seven display pilots and ten Gnat jet trainers.

The name ‘Red Arrows’ was chosen to combine the appeal and expertise of two earlier teams, the famous Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.

So how do you become a Red Arrow display pilot?

You must have a minimum of 1,500 flying hours and have completed a frontline tour and be assessed as above average in your flying role. From those who fulfill these qualifications, a shortlist of nine applicants is created. They go through a “selection week” including flying tests, interviews and peer assessments. If you are selected, you do a three-year tour before returning to your Royal Air Force duties.

I don’t fit the minimum requirements for the RAF under any circumstances but … well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

And finally, a gallery of stunning Red Arrow images that made me stop and stare (click through the thumbnails to view full-size or right-click to open in a new window):

All images are Crown copyright and taken from the Royal Airforce Press Collection. You can see more imagery of the Red Arrows on the Multimedia page.

11 December 2009

Drunk steals plane at airshow

I had to cover my eyes to watch this video the first time I was shown it. But then I kept peeking through my fingers.

Totally amazing. It’s hard for me to imagine ever having the skill required to appear to fly that badly. It’s awesome. He’s got incredible control.

The pilot is Kyle Franklin from Franklin’s Flying Circus & Airshow. He is married to the beautiful Amanda Younkin, who manages Franklin’s Flying Circus and Younkin Airshows. Kyle and Bobby Younkin are the pilots – although Amanda can fly as well. When she was featured in the 2010 Bombshell calendar, she was the only babe to fly the planes as well as pose in front of them.

(Hey, another great gift idea! You can buy the calendar online at My Bombshells)

A high resolution copy of film can be downloaded from their website along with a dozen other clips of the circus in action at Franklin’s Flying Circus Video Page. This particular clip is the one marked as “Comedy Act Video Download” and worth watching full-screen on the biggest monitor you can find.

The website also includes details of Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin, who tragically crashed at the Saskatchewan Centennial Air Show in 2005. Their air show team, Masters of Disaster was one of the most sought after in the industry at the time of the accident.

I enjoyed reading the short essays but was especially entranced by the descriptions of Kyle Franklin growing up with airshows as a standard backdrop of his childhood:

Kyle grew up living in a hangar-house in Ruidoso, NM. The hangar soon became his favorite playground as well as a place where he and his father shared quality time servicing Waco’s, Super Cubs, and the Aerostar. Kyle’s first airplane ride was four weeks after his birth. Father Jimmy taught him how to fly when he was eight years old and later taught him aerobatics. As a toddler, Kyle seized every opportunity to wing-walk in Dad’s Waco Mystery Ship as it taxied on about on the ground at air shows. Kyle took his first airborne wing-walk at age 14, and just three years later he was wing-walking professionally at age 17.

I am definitely hoping to see more of Kyle, Bobby and Amanda and Franklin’s Flying Circus & Airshow.


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