Ejection Sequence Failed Before Deadly Fighter Jet Crash, Investigation Shows

David Schmitz poses at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
Then-Staff Sgt. David Schmitz poses at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington in 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jacob Jimenez)

The U.S. Air Force has ruled that the pilot killed in an F-16 Fighting Falcon crash at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in June could not recover the jet after he severely damaged the aircraft's landing gear upon touching down.

It also found that there were contributing factors that led to his death, including an ejection attempt that failed because of a seat malfunction, according to a new Accident Investigation Board report.

First Lt. David Schmitz, of the 77th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Wing, died June 30 following a nighttime qualification training sortie while attempting to land. The accident occurred at approximately 11 p.m. local time.

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That evening, Schmitz was part of a four-aircraft group practicing refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker, as well as training to take out enemy air defenses. The other aircraft were successfully able to refuel from the tanker, but Schmitz was not and had to return to base alongside the mission's flight lead in order to preserve fuel, according to the investigation.

During his final approach, Schmitz's aircraft came down too early and "struck the localizer antenna array short of the runway threshold, severely damaging the left main landing gear," according to the report.

Investigators determined that Schmitz made contact with the antenna because he incorrectly "interpreted the approach lighting system [to] identify the runway threshold," the report states.

The hit damaged the landing gear, caused its wheel to rotate perpendicular to the direction of travel and split its hydraulic lines, creating a failure in its secondary "system B" hydraulics, which controls the power to the landing gear, nose wheel steering and wheel brakes, among other actions.

Schmitz's aircraft was on the ground for approximately 330 feet, then lifted off again to begin a go-around sequence.

The first lieutenant spoke with the supervisor of flying, or SOF, in the control tower, as well as the flight mission lead, about follow-on procedures. Both officials determined that Schmitz should follow the guidelines laid out in the "Landing with a Landing Gear Unsafe/Up" checklist and that he should attempt an approach-end cable arrestment, meaning that the F-16's tailhook would be caught by a steel cable on the runway.

Knowing his gear was mangled, Schmitz asked the SOF whether the checklist still applied. The SOF, unnamed in the report, did not directly answer his question, while the mission lead said "he believed the checklist was appropriate," according to the investigation.

When the F-16's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, was consulted following the accident, company engineers said that that particular checklist "only applies if a landing gear fails to extend normally, not when it is damaged or hanging."

The SOF and mission lead also told Schmitz that an ejection might be required "if conditions are not favorable."

It was decided that an arrest landing would be attempted. But because of the damage to the directional control, among other factors, the aircraft's tailhook did not catch the cable and the left wing contacted the ground as the F-16CM, tail number 94-0043, came down the runway.

Schmitz initiated the ejection sequence at a ground speed of 129 knots, but there was an ejection seat malfunction within the ACES II seat. The event called for a Mode 1 ejection, or an egress for speeds less than 250 knots and altitudes less than 15,000 feet, for which the drogue parachute -- the subsequent chute -- doesn't deploy.

Normally, when the seat exits the aircraft, "the Digital Recovery Sequencer (DRS) is activated, which is responsible for providing seat stabilization, pilot/seat separation, and parachute deployment," the report states.

However, there was a critical failure of the DRS, "resulting in its failure to sequence or control all subsequent actions," according to the report.

The system normally fires signals to multiple pyrotechnic devices, which execute the ejection sequence. In Schmitz's case, six pyrotechnic devices should have fired, "yielding a parachute in less than two seconds."

But the devices did not fire, and the parachute did not deploy. Schmitz had only 3.4 seconds after initiating ejection to pull the emergency manual parachute deployment handle to recover.

The Accident Investigation Board president, Maj. Gen. Randal K. Efferson, found that it was "possible but highly unlikely" anyone could have done so in that timeframe.

Schmitz impacted the ground while still in the seat. He died instantly.

Inspectors from the Air Force Research Lab found that there were errors within two of the three control channels within the DRS: Channel two failed due "to a critical error at power-on, and channel three failed due to a signal noise issue," the report states.

The error would have been found within a Time Compliance Technical Order maintenance inspection; the first opportunity for the TCTO would have been in 2017, but was not executed because of "lack of available parts," the report adds.

"The TCTO requirement was automatically deferred to the next 36-month seat inspection, which was 28 August 2020," approximately eight weeks after the accident, according to the report.

If the TCTO had been done in advance, the error was likely avoidable, Efferson said.

Lockheed's engineers stated that there is no particular checklist for such a unique situation, but added that in previous instances with a damaged landing gear, "an ejection was performed instead of attempting a cable arrestment," according to the report.

Furthermore, the SOF should have placed a call to Lockheed's security hotline, which has personnel on 24-hour standby to support units in need of emergency services, instead of calling for a cable-arrest landing without a second opinion, Efferson concluded.

The cost of damages to base property was about $25 million, according to a release accompanying the accident report.

"This accident is a tragic reminder of the inherent risks of fighter aviation and our critical oversight responsibilities required for successful execution," Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said in a statement accompanying the report.

"The AIB report identified a sequence of key execution anomalies and material failures that resulted in this mishap. For example, in order to account for the increased demands and pilot workload involved with night flying, Air Force Instructions mandate pilots demonstrate proficiency in events like aerial refueling in the daytime before attempting them at night," Kelly said. "That didn't occur for this officer, and when we have oversight breakdowns or failures of critical egress systems, it is imperative that we fully understand what transpired, meticulously evaluate risk, and ensure timely and effective mitigations are in place to reduce or eliminate future mishaps."

Schmitz received his pilot's license at the age of 17, enlisted in the Air Force soon after and served as a loadmaster on the C-17 Globemaster III, according to the service. He then attended Officer Training School in his effort to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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