The Vectren Dayton Air Show will launch today without the Air Force Thunderbirds after one of the team’s F-16 jets apparently skidded off a runway and landed on its top Friday, trapping two people inside.
The cause of the accident is under investigation, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Heard, who said the pilot and a Thunderbird team member who was a passenger in the two-seat F-16 were conscious and talking when first responders extricated the two from the jet at Dayton International Airport.
Pilot Capt. Erik Gonsalves and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Cordova were taken to Miami Valley Hospital and were in good condition Friday evening, according to the Air Force. Gonsalves had some lacerations as well as some injuries to his leg, but is in stable to good condition, according to Heard. Cordova had no visible injuries.
“I was on the scene throughout the recovery effort,” Heard said. “It was a tremendous effort. We are very, very impressed and grateful they were able to extract our Thunderbirds.”
Heard said they did not have a cause for the mishap.
“We land in rain all the time. His approach and landing met all of those legal requirements,” Heard said.
Pushed on the cause during a press conference, Heard said, “Often times if you speculate you will miss what the actual root cause is.”
The F-16 Thunderbird fighter plane is built for flying but in windy weather on the ground it can be a challenge to drive on the runway, said aviation expert Ken Currell of Centerville.
“(A gust) can get underneath the wing of that airplane and potentially flip it, particularly if the airplane is moving at all,” said Currell, a corporate pilot, former fighter pilot and president of the Air Force Association-Wright Memorial Chapter.
“If the wind provided by Mother Nature is already providing some lift to the wing and you have the taxiing adding lift as well, the gust could be enough to get the wing up,” Currell said.
With wind and rain most of the morning the weather likely played a role in the accident, said Currell and Retired Col. Richard Lohnes, former commander of the 178th Fighter Wing in Springfield. He flew fighter jets for 34 years and the F-16 for 15 years.
The airport received a record 2.69 inches of rain for the date, exceeding a prior record of just over an inch in 1896.
“A 30 mile an hour gust of wind would have an effect,” said Lohnes, who is president of the Clark County Commission. “With all that rain if the main landing gear got off the taxiway into the mud that would make it even easier to flip over.”
The weight of the plane also could play a role.
“It doesn’t weigh all that much and it’s aerodynamic to fly, so wind can have an effect on it,” Lohnes said. “When we park them we tie them down.”
Currell, who has flown both the F-16 and F-4, said some planes are easier than others to drive on the runway but the F-16 has a narrow wheelbase that makes it harder to drive, especially if rain puddles created a hydroplane situation.
“Other airplanes are like trucks on the ground. That plane is not,” said Currell. “They are magnificent in the air. On the ground they are like the proverbial duck out of water.”
Heard said he was not aware of similar accident in the past with the Thunderbirds, which have not made a decision on if the team will fly on Sunday.
“We love performing for the crowd. Obviously, it’s a disappointment any time we have to cancel a performance. If I can’t ensure team and crowd safety, we won’t fly,” Heard said.
Gonsalves is the advance pilot/narrator for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 8 jet, according to an Air Force biography. He entered the Air Force in 2008 as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he is in his first season with the Thunderbirds team.
Cordova has been in the Air Force since 2009, and serves as a tactical aircraft maintainer, according to the Air Force. Some of Cordova’s responsibilities include performing scheduled inspections, functional checks and preventive maintenance on tactical aircraft and aircraft-installed equipment.
Commercial flights at the airport continued after the incident, according to director Terrence Slaybaugh. “We were able to very quickly open the airport,” he said.
Airport firefighters in two trucks were at the overturned jet “immediately,” Slaybaugh said. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base first responders were also at the airport and worked to pull the two jet crew members out of the crippled fighter plane.
Slaybaugh said the top priority of the airport is to ensure crowd safety this weekend and help the Thunderbirds team process the incident.
“We’re obviously very disappointed they won’t fly (tomorrow),” Slaybaugh said. “We’ll get through it.”
Slaybaugh said the mishap was a “best-case scenario,” with a quick response from emergency teams and no fatalities. The Dayton airport will work “arm in arm” with the military during its investigation into the accident.
Response teams would work through the night to move the aircraft away from the accident site, he said.