NO CLOWNING AROUND - Pilots who knowingly break the rules are losing their flying jobs, or even worse ... their lives

  • Published
  • By Lt Col. Richard Doyle
  • AETC, Chief of Flight Safety
Flying multi-million dollar aircraft at high speeds and performance is no time to clown around. But breaking the rules has cost more than one pilot his career ... or life.

Case in point: The June 24, 1994, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., B-52 bomber crash has become a classic case study in rogue behavior and the failure of leadership to correct such behavior. During an airshow practice, with a "fini" flight aircrew member on board, the pilot of the B-52 flew the aircraft into an accelerated stall with inadequate altitude to recover. The aircraft was destroyed, and all four crew members perished. The co-pilot attempted ejection, but it was too late.

The crash was captured on film and was shown repeatedly on news broadcasts throughout the world.

The accident investigation revealed at least seven prior breaches of flight discipline to include unauthorized flybys, exceeding bank and pitch limits and low-altitude deviations. Leadership was aware of the pilot's willful disregard of the rules. It was so bad that one of the squadron commanders would not allow his crewmembers to fly with the mishap pilot. That commander was the co-pilot on the fight. While there were instances of verbal reprimands, no further action was taken.

If you have been in the Air Force for any significant time, you probably have studied this mishap and might know the story by heart. But it was almost 18 years ago; this stuff doesn't happen anymore. Right?

Fast forward to July 27, 2004. On a cross country mission for instructor continuation training, a T-6 crew flew a two-hop to Savannah, Ga., to remain overnight. On the outbound legs, the crew flew several unauthorized and illegal low-altitude aerial maneuvers, including aileron rolls and high-speed passes, steep bank and high pitch. Three of these demonstrations occurred at altitudes as low as 50 feet, with two near family homes.

Sound familiar?

The night of the arrival in Savannah involved meeting with friends for dinner followed by drinks at a local bar. Between the five who made it to the bar, they consumed 33 alcoholic drinks. Seven of the drinks were 23 ounces. The crew paid the bar tab around 11 p.m. and departed for crew rest. At 7 a.m. the following morning, one of the crew woke the other urging for an early departure. The crew ate a light breakfast before arriving on base. No evidence of a filed flight plan was found, and the crew brushed off a friend's question of whether they needed to file a flight plan and get weather forecasts.

They performed a quick preflight around 8:50 a.m., taxied a short distance for takeoff and requested one pattern before departing to the west. On takeoff, the pilot kept the aircraft in ground effect, accelerating to 170 knots. He then executed an aggressive closed pull-up maneuver. He failed to maintain a minimum safe airspeed and bank angle, which resulted in an accelerated stall below 500 feet above ground level, and complete loss of control of the aircraft.

The front seat pilot was fatally injured during an unsuccessful ejection attempt. The aircraft was destroyed, and both crew members perished.

Sound familiar?

This accident is not as well known as the B-52 mishap, but is more applicable to our command. Initially the investigators had no inkling of the unauthorized flybys performed the day before the mishap. That was revealed after reviewing the Integrated Data Acquisition Reporting System when investigators had intended to view just the mishap sequence. The flybys demonstrated a complete lack of flight discipline, which continued until the mishap.

The crew then chose to disregard Air Force Instruction 11-202, General Flight Rules, which states aircrew shall not consume alcoholic beverages within 12 hours of take-off. Then they chose to fly an aggressive maneuver near the ground with inadequate airspeed that clearly exceeded the capabilities of the training airplane.

Obviously this was not the first time an unauthorized flyby resulted in death. That's why we have rules covering aerial demonstrations. This was not the first time that poor judgment from alcohol consumption has led to death; that's why we have rules concerning alcohol and flying (or driving for that matter).

Why did the crew think violating the rules was acceptable behavior? What if one of them had spoken up and just said no? Oh well, this incident happened about eight years ago. Surely this kind of stuff doesn't still go on today, right?

Fast forward to Nov. 20, 2010. Four T-38 Talons were at an altitude just 16 feet above the stadium's press box when they wowed 70,000 football fans inside the University of Iowa's Kinnick Stadium before Iowa hosted Ohio State. The jets cleared the scoreboard by 58 feet, and their altitude of 176 feet above ground level was far lower than the 1,000-foot minimum elevation required for flights above a populated area such as a stadium.

In other words, they endangered tens of thousands of lives.

The jets also approached speeds of 400 knots, above the limit of 300, during both the flyover and practice runs the day before.

Wing leadership called for the investigation days after the game as video of the flyover started circulating on the internet. Spectators said they were amazed by the jets' speed and precision and how close they came to the top of the stadium. Fans erupted in cheers and later gave the pilots an ovation when they were introduced during the game. However, the investigation used Federal Aviation Administration radar data to confirm the flight violated speed and altitude rules.

The flight lead was punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and negotiated a legal agreement. He agreed to give up his wings, forfeit two months of pay, received an official reprimand and signed a waiver allowing the Air Force to discuss what happened. In exchange, he avoided court-martial and was allowed to leave the service.

Five other pilots (three who flew in the formation and two who acted as ground controllers) received administrative discipline for their roles in the flyover.

Again, why did the aircrew think violating the rules was acceptable behavior? What if one of them had spoken up and just said no? I'll bet the formation lead now wishes one of his wingmen had said something.

But this was just one recent isolated event, right?


In fiscal 2011, in addition to the flyby incident above, the following transgressions occurred in Air Education and Training Command:

  • A pilot circumvented the normal Form 1042/flight physical process and flew while DNIF (duty not to include flying). This breach of discipline resulted in an Article 15 for dereliction of duty and false official statement, and he was removed from the lieutenant colonel promotion list.
  • An instructor pilot led a flyby with students in the back seat, resulting in Letters of Admonishment, to include one for a squadron commander for not properly reporting the incident.
  • An instructor pilot texted while flying and performed an unauthorized flyby of his family's hunting lodge with a student onboard. This resulted in a flight evaluation board where his aviation status was permanently revoked.
  • Even as this article was being written, four AETC pilots were facing disciplinary action for flying barrels roles in an MC-12 in the Central Command area of responsibility. They are not just in trouble for flying a maneuver that the plane was obviously not designed for, but also for knowing the maneuver was to be flown and failing to try to stop the pilot, and then not reporting the incident after it happened. This is another scenario where you have to wonder what would have happened if someone had just said no. Everyone would have been better off.
Given the previously cited consequences of breaches of flight discipline, these aircrew members got off easy. ... They are still alive.

So next time you see something does not look right, do your instructor pilot, aircraft commander, lead or wingman a favor and tell them to "knock it off" before someone breaks something, ruins their career or gets killed. What is the worst that could happen? The maneuver is terminated, and you explain you called "knock it off" for a concern about safety or discipline. And maybe you risk somebody getting irritated with you.

But that's way better than the alternative: risking your career ... and maybe your life.