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SPATIAL DISORIENTATION LEADS TO F-15E CRASH, DEATH OF PILOT

An F-15E Strike Eagle pilot demonstrates the aircraft's maneuverability April 9, 2011, during the Charleston Air Expo at Joint Base Charleston S.C. The F-15E is a multirole fighter capable of air-to-surface and air-to-air combat. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class James Richardson)

An F-15E Strike Eagle struck a radio tower after the pilot became spatially disoriented on a nighttime mission at a deployed location in Southwest Asia, according to accident investigators. The pilot was killed, while the weapons systems officer successfully ejected and suffered only minor injuries. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class James Richardson)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas -- An accident investigation board determined the March 28, 2012, crash of an F-15E Strike Eagle deployed to Southwest Asia happened because the pilot, who was fatally injured during the mishap, became spatially disoriented on the nighttime mission, according to a recently released report.

The board president found clear and convincing evidence that the pilot became spatially disoriented because of a visual illusion during his nighttime recovery to the deployed operating location. The weapons systems officer ejected safely with only minor injuries. The pilot, however, was killed when his ejection sequence was interrupted by contact with a 377-foot tower that was part of a large radio tower array, the accident report said. The aircraft was destroyed after contacting the radio tower and subsequently the ground, with losses valued at more than $47 million. The aircraft also caused damage to host nation property.

According to the report, the aircraft, assigned to the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, impacted the ground approximately 18 nautical miles west, southwest of its deployed operating location. The mishap crew was participating in a large force exercise as the flight lead of a two-ship of F-15Es in a strike package of 27 aircraft. At the conclusion of the tactical portion of the mission, the mishap crew removed their night vision goggles and proceeded back to the base. Blowing dust and sand obscured the horizon. Because of the reduced visibility and the lack of a discernible horizon, the pilot incorrectly interpreted the visual scene in front of him and began a series of abrupt maneuvers that ultimately resulted in him rolling the aircraft into an inverted attitude 1,800 feet above ground level and 25 degrees nose low. The weapons systems officer became convinced the pilot had become disoriented and took control of the aircraft. After attempting to recover the aircraft, the WSO initiated ejection for the crew.

In addition to the spatial disorientation, investigators found the lack of an effective instrument crosscheck by the pilot and a combination of the environmental and procedural factors present on the approach to the base substantially contributed to the mishap, the report said.