Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about the fatal accident of 1st Lt. David Schmitz, an F-16 pilot at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.
Valerie Rudolph wasn't the waitress assigned to a table full of Air Force C-17 Globemaster III pilots and loadmasters taking a dinner break at Olive Garden while in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for a military exercise in 2011.
But her friend, who was taking care of the table, slipped a napkin with Valerie's name and number to one of the loadmasters, David Schmitz.
"If he doesn't call you, I thought, 'Who cares, you're not going to see him again,'" Valerie said, deciding to take a chance. Instead, she saw him that very night on their first date, during which Schmitz was open about his aspirations.
"I'm gonna finish my degree, and I'm going to go to [Officer Training School], and I'm going to become a pilot," she recalled him saying.
Flash forward to June 30, 2020. Valerie, who'd been David's wife for seven years by then, got a knock on the door in the middle of the night at their Sumter, South Carolina, home. She thought her husband, a newly minted F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter pilot, had forgotten his keys.
But it was representatives from Shaw Air Force Base, David's home station, coming to tell her that he was dead.
While on a nighttime training mission, Schmitz, assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron, could not recover his F-16 after he severely damaged the aircraft's landing gear upon touching down, striking an antenna array short of the runway. He attempted an ill-advised cable arrest with his mangled gear, as suggested by members in the control tower, then tried to eject as his left wing hit the runway, according to an Accident Investigation Board report released in November.
The ejection seat malfunctioned. He died instantly. He was 32.
Schmitz's tragic death underscores the inherent risks of fighter training. But it also casts a harsh light on the impacts of limited flight hours and insufficient training due to limited available aircraft and the demands of real-life missions. Despite the best efforts of the Air Force and Congress to understand what causes catastrophic aviation mishaps, it's clear that a lot of work remains.
Schmitz's focus that night was split between two missions: He was part of a four-aircraft group conducting an air-to-air refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker and a suppression of enemy air defense simulation. While it was not unusual to combine events, the Air Force said, Schmitz had no prior experience with either. Part of that training, particularly a fighter conducting air-to-air refueling, was supposed to take place before Schmitz got to Shaw. It didn't. He was unable to successfully refuel that night, despite his attempts.
Shaw had drastically limited flying operations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schmitz had spent just 8 hours in his jet in the 30 days before the accident, according to the accident report. And throughout his training, he had racked up only 12 night flights total in the F-16, with just two at Shaw.
Schmitz arrived at Shaw from the F-16 "B course" at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, just that January and had only a few weeks' training in the air before the temporary stoppage.
He was supposed to receive in-flight refueling experience at the B course, which was his formal training unit, but did not.
The investigation stated that these factors contributed to the already complicated task of executing these events without prior experience. As a result, a relatively routine training mission turned fatal.
The crash has gotten the attention of at least one lawmaker, who wants confirmation this doesn’t happen again in the wake of Schmitz's death.
"The leadership at Shaw must ensure that the first air-to-air refueling and first suppression of enemy air defense training sorties are not done at night," Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican who has been in touch with the Schmitz family, told Military.com. The investigation concluded pilots can have their first air-to-air refueling only if accomplished in a two-seater jet with an instructor present. Otherwise, daytime is preferred.
"The Air Force must review their risk management process to improve its effectiveness in determining safe training conditions," Calvert said.
Maj. Gen. Mark Slocum, Air Combat Command director of air and space operations, said the Air Force is committed to preventing any more accidents like Schmitz's.
Through multiple Air Force-wide leadership conferences, major command events and several directives issued to combat flying squadrons, "we have worked with leadership at all levels to apply the lessons from this tragic accident beyond just the F-16 community and to all applicable weapons systems in order to minimize risk to our aircrew," Slocum said in a statement.
Over the last year, pilots have worked more with refueling tankers to make sure they are proficient in the skill, according to Col. Lawrence Sullivan, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw.
"[While] those introductory skill sets are often taught at a training base, not a combat-coded F-16 unit … we spent some of our own wing funds to have them come up and park tankers up on our ramp here at Shaw and then fly with us multiple times per day with multiple jets," Sullivan said in an interview last month. "Which is a little bit of an anomaly."
Air Education and Training Command, or AETC, which oversees the majority of the pilot training pipeline for the service, has requested additional tanker support to F-16, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II formal training units -- where pilots are assigned to their official aircraft following undergraduate pilot training -- "to ensure adequate training is available," the command said in a statement Friday.
Lost Training Time, Dwindling Opportunity
Schmitz, a California native, received his pilot's license at the age of 17. He enlisted in the Air Force soon after and served as a C-17 loadmaster, achieving the rank of staff sergeant, according to the service. He completed his undergraduate degree in aeronautics through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, minoring in aviation safety, Valerie said.
As a loadmaster assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Schmitz took Valerie up in his Cessna on what she called a memorable "date night," during which he mused that he would perhaps someday teach pilot students of his own.
"He was so goal-driven and motivated, and just, 'This is what I'm doing, I'm going to do it. This is my journey,'" Valerie said.
Schmitz was selected to attend Officer Training School in 2016. A year later, he trained on the T-6 Texan II and then the T-38 Talon. He was a distinguished graduate from undergraduate pilot training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, according to the Air Force.
During introduction to fighter fundamentals, an eight-week course for pilots after they earn their wings, Schmitz earned the Top Gun Award for exceptional air-to-air training.
At the time of the accident, Schmitz was a current and qualified F-16 pilot undergoing mission qualification training, or MQT, when students are trained to be combat-ready pilots. He was graded as "slightly above average" and was nearing his 100th flight hour in the fighter jet.
Shaw receives new pilots almost every week, Sullivan said, meaning that of the 120 F-16 pilots based there, up to a dozen are going through mission qualification training at any given time.
"He was approximately two-thirds of the way through his qualification training on his way to being mission ready," Sullivan said of Schmitz.
Valerie said that Schmitz's squadron was getting ready to deploy sometime that fall.
AETC acknowledged that certain formal training units, or FTUs, have seen a shift in training over the years, primarily during times of increased deployments to the Middle East.
FTUs saw weeks added to their course load in lieu of MQT at an operational base. In 2018, Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes, then head of Air Combat Command, directed that FTU course length return to the standard six-month timeframe.
As a result, "some of the advanced tasks that had migrated to the formal training unit shifted back to the ops units," AETC said. "As a consequence of this shift, operational units have had to modify their mission qualified training programs to reflect the additional training required."
"Guidance remains that FTUs will teach basic and fundamental skills, while operational units will teach advanced tactics," command officials added.
Valerie remembered Schmitz mentioning he had not received the in-flight refueling training because of a tanker unavailability. It was a requirement meant to be fulfilled during the day -- not at night -- prior to heading off to an operational unit.
"He kind of explained to me that, 'Well, they get all my records, and they'll see,'" Valerie said, adding that Schmitz anticipated he would complete the training later at Shaw.
On the night of the accident, the mission flight lead pilot incorrectly filled out his risk management worksheet, which estimates the amount of risk before an event, evaluating factors such as experience, weather and other conditions, the accident report said.
Shaw -- which houses three F-16 operational squadrons -- creates syllabi for each new pilot, tailoring it to what they need to accomplish to be fully qualified.
It just takes time, Sullivan said.
"Traditionally, that 'upgrade' program has taken 90 days. We've received a waiver extension to do that for 120 days just based on the number of young pilots that we have -- the delays in the schedule based on the experience shortages," he said. "It takes old, experienced pilots to lead the young pilots around and teach them these skill sets. The ratios are backward.
"We look at experienced and inexperienced ratios and squadrons," Sullivan continued. "And for a lot of reasons, a healthy sustainable mix is about 60% experienced and maybe 40% inexperienced. The pilot shortage has sometimes inverted those ratios. And there's just not as many training opportunities." He was referring to the service's years-long pilot shortage and efforts to train more aviators.
How many flight opportunities exist is often out of commanders' control, said retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, an F-15 Eagle pilot who led Air Combat Command between 2014 and 2017.
"Muscle memory and learning, and learning and repetition is incredibly important," Carlisle said in an interview Friday.
Schedules aren't always going to align, as tankers and fighters are busy with operations worldwide and may be unavailable to do training events, he explained. Breaks in training, due to deployments or unforeseen circumstances like COVID-19, "depending on training delay … you don't have as many sorties available."
Referring to Schmitz’s accident, Carlisle noted that night sorties are key to mastering that training, "because depth perception is significantly different at night."
Pilots have been getting fewer flight hours for years now, Carlisle said.
While the service has stressed a demand to boost readiness and mission capability, total pilot flight hours, including those supporting warfighting overseas, decreased from 1.33 million in 2020 to 1.24 million in 2021. In its fiscal 2022 budget request, the Air Force plans to shave that down even further: from 1.24 million to 1.15 million, according to budget documents.
Top service leaders have cited progress in keeping pilots in the service longer because of the pandemic economy, but have chosen not to increase cockpit hours.
A decreased military footprint overseas contributes to that diminished flight necessity to a certain extent, Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary overseeing the budget, said May 28.
Last year, "we reduced the flying hours to actually execute more in line with what we can do in each given fiscal year," Peccia told reporters during a briefing on the budget request. "In FY22 we've done the same thing, but we've taken just a little bit more risk in the flying hours … for peacetime [flying]."
"Rest assured, I'll be advocating to reject the proposed cut in flight training hours," Calvert, the congressman, said.
"There are multiple components. One of them is time -- look at the deployment [tempo], certainly leading up to where we're at today," Carlisle said of a strained and overworked force.
"Shaving down flying hours, part of that isn't that they cut the flying hours because they want to, it's because it's unexecutable," he added, saying the Air Force continuously needs to fix older airplanes to keep them ready for flight.
Following a spike in deadly crashes in 2018, a congressionally mandated commission last year told lawmakers and the Defense Department more action is needed.
The National Commission on Military Aviation Safety in December released a report on aviation accidents from 2013 to 2018, showing that inadequate management and often-overlooked shortfalls in training and experience can be tied to the surge in accidents. The commission recommended restoring flight time for pilots to previous levels, if not boosting it.
"Air Force pilots learning to fly the F-16 in 2018 had 28.1 fewer flight hours as compared to a pilot trained just eight years earlier," the report found. "While some of this time was replaced by additional simulator hours, a pilot in 2018 would report to their operational unit with significantly less flight experience. Twenty flights were cut from the syllabus. This reduction in training impacted operational flying units."
Schmitz was one of them.
Nearly One Year
In the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of his death, Valerie reflected on what could have been done differently.
"From the beginning, he shouldn't have been scheduled to do those events at night for the first time ever," she said.
Carlisle agreed, saying that Schmitz should have been trained on a daytime refueling first.
"You've got to work hard to not let those things happen," he said.
The Schmitz family will return to Shaw to attend a 5K later this month in David's honor. They have created a foundation that gives scholarships to those who want to pursue a career in aviation but cannot afford to do so.
On Feb. 17, David's birthday, the foundation awarded 24 scholarships in his name.
Valerie hopes instructor pilots and commanders are taking specific interest in each of their pilots to make sure they're ready -- not neglecting or overlooking where improvements could be made.
"You've got this new pilot in the squadron, he's fresh out of F-16 B course, he hasn't done [aerial refueling] yet, hasn't been doing a whole lot of flying lately, due to COVID," she said. "From a training standpoint, I just hope they make sure that training continues to be progressive. Don't skip steps. I don't think it's fair to the pilots. I know I only have Dave's case as an example to really go off of, but it does make me wonder.
"I kissed my husband goodbye that morning. I watched him walk down the hallway and leave. I didn't know it was going to be the last time I'd see him," Valerie recalled.
She said she knew that what he was going to do that night was going to be challenging.
But in typical David Schmitz fashion, Valerie said, "He said, 'Alright, let's do this.'"
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.