F-16 Thunderbirds Pilot Dies In Crash Near Nellis Air Force Base

Two U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an aerial demonstration during the Thunder Over South Georgia Air Show, Oct. 29, 2017 at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. (U.S. Air Force photo/Eugene Oliver)
Two U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an aerial demonstration during the Thunder Over South Georgia Air Show, Oct. 29, 2017 at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. (U.S. Air Force photo/Eugene Oliver)

An Air Force Thunderbird pilot was killed after his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed on Wednesday during a routine training flight at the Nevada Test and Training Range, Nellis Air Force Base officials said.

The identity of the pilot is being withheld for 24 hours pending next-of-kin notification, the base said in a release.

The accident is under investigation, the base said.

Fox5 Las Vegas first reported it was a Thunderbirds jet during its 6:00 p.m. local broadcast on Tuesday, and said that officials were making next-of-kin notifications before releasing further details.

The team was slated to perform this weekend at March Air Reserve Base, California, their website said.

"The team's participation at 'The March Field Air & Space Expo' has been cancelled," Nellis said. "It is unknown how this accident will impact the remainder of the 2018 Thunderbirds season.”

The Thunderbirds, the Air Force's premier traveling demonstration team, are assigned to the 57th Wing at Nellis. The team flies the Block 52 variant F-16C and D models.

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The single-engine, multirole F-16, known as the "Viper" throughout the fighter community, has been the mainstay of the Thunderbirds for decades. Last summer, the traveling demonstration team took its first overseas trip since 2011.

The latest crash marks the third mishap for the Thunderbirds in the last three years.

Before the start of an airshow in Dayton, Ohio, Thunderbird 08 -- piloted by Capt. Erik "Speedy" Gonsalves -- flipped on a wet runway following a "familiarization flight" on June 23, 2017 for a fellow Thunderbirds maintenance crew member.

At the time, Thunderbirds Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Jason Heard defended Gonsalves' efforts to recover, given the circumstances.

Gonsalves had "a lot of experience," Heard said, with 1,600 flight hours. "We land in rain all the time."

Heard added, "From the Thunderbirds that were on scene ... to crash recovery ... to fire department ... it was a tremendous effort. Very impressed and grateful."

The aircraft, valued at $29 million, was destroyed.

In 2016, the Thunderbirds had a mishap after an accidental throttle rotation led to a malfunction and subsequent engine stall that caused the No. 6 jet to crash.

It happened after a flyover of the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation on June 2, attended by then-President Barack Obama. The loss of the aircraft cost $29 million.

In November, Heard was relieved of command due to loss of confidence in his leadership.

He was replaced by Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Thunderbird's 2016-2017 operations officer. The Thunderbirds website says Walsh remains the commander even though Air Combat Command at the time said Walsh was to assume command temporarily.

Heard was the commander during the 2017 Thunderbirds mishap, but ACC said the leadership change was unrelated to the accident.

There have been nine "class A" mishaps involving the F-16 since the start of fiscal year 2016. In seven of the mishaps, aircraft were completely destroyed, according to aviation statistics from the Air Force Safety Center. Class A mishaps include fatal accidents, severe damage totaling millions of dollars, or a complete loss of the aircraft.

Nellis has F-16C and F-16D models, Blocks 25, 32, 40, 42 and 52, spokeswoman Maj Christina Suckach told Military.com on Wednesday.

The F-16 incident is the latest of several aviation mishaps in the last two days.

On Tuesday, a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed during a training mission in southern California, with all four on board presumed dead.

Also Tuesday, a Marine Harrier jet crashed during takeoff from an airport in Djibouti. The pilot was able to eject and was being treated for injuries, officials told Military.com. It's not clear what prompted the pilot's ejection.

Separately, another CH-53 "sustained minor structural damage" during a landing in Djibouti near Arta Beach, a military spokesman told CNN on Wednesday.

--Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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