Air Force says fatal T-38 crash in 2019 was due to pilot error
The crash that killed Wilkie and Kincade was the third fatal crash involving Air Force officers in the T-38C Talon trainer jet in two years.
The Air Force released a report Friday on a fatal November 2019 T-38 accident at Vance Air Force Base, finding pilot error on the part of both the instructor pilot and student as the cause of the crash.
The “mishap” involved two Air Force T-38 Talons at approximately 9:06 a.m. Nov. 21, 2019, as instructor pilot Lt. Col. John “Matt” Kincade, 47, and student pilot 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, were flying a formation landing on the left wing of a second T-38 to the center runway at Vance.
Kincade and Wilkie died in the crash when their T-38 landed inverted after colliding with and rolling over top of the lead aircraft in their two-plane formation, the Air Force investigation reported.
The Accident Investigation Board (AIB) president “found by a preponderance of the evidence the causes of the mishap were the instructor pilot of the first aircraft (Kincade) failing to take control of the aircraft as a precarious situation developed and the student pilot (Wilkie) subsequently making an inappropriate flight control input,” according to the report.
The instructor and student in the lead aircraft, which departed the runway but remained upright, were able to safely exit their aircraft and were not injured in the accident. They are not named in the report.
Wilkie, the student, had control of the T-38 as he and Kincade approached the runway on the left wing of the lead T-38. The AIB found Wilkie was focused on the lead aircraft, did not properly cross-check his runway alignment, and approached the runway left of center on his half of the landing surface.
Wilkie touched down headed slightly left of runway alignment, with his left main landing gear about 15 feet from the edge of the runway. At that point, the AIB found Wilkie prematurely executed an “aerodynamic braking maneuver,” in which the nose is slightly raised to create drag and slow the aircraft before applying mechanical brakes.
The premature aerodynamic braking caused the aircraft to again lift off the runway, and for the next three seconds the T-38 “was either slightly off the ground or so lightly planted that there was essentially no weight on its wheels.” The AIB reported Wilkie applied right rudder in an attempt to not depart the runway to the left.
Heads-Up Display (HUD) recordings examined after the accident indicated the aircraft then began to roll and yaw to the right, and Kincade verbally ordered Wilkie to abort the landing and “go around” for another attempt. Due to the roll and yaw to the right, the T-38 carrying Wilkie and Kincade impacted the runway on its right main wheel, and entered a skid on a collision course with the lead aircraft.
At about that point, the AIB found it was likely Kincade took control of the aircraft and the throttles were advanced to full power in an attempt to take off and fly over the lead aircraft. But, the aircraft “lacked sufficient airspeed to generate enough altitude,” according to the report, and its right outboard gear door collided with the left wingtip of the lead plane.
The collision caused Wilkie and Kincade's T-38 to “roll rapidly right,” passing over top of the lead aircraft and impacting the ground inverted or nearly inverted. Wilkie and Kincade were killed on impact with the ground, according to the report. Their T-38, which was still at maximum power, slid approximately 700 feet before coming to rest, still inverted.
The total time from when the aircraft crossed the runway threshold until it impacted the ground inverted was approximately eight seconds, according to the report.
Neither Wilkie nor Kincade initiated ejection during the crash, the board found. Wilkie's body remained in the aircraft until it could be safely removed several hours later, after an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from McConnell Air Force Base arrived to disarm the charges in his ejection seat.
Kincade's seat did eject from the aircraft after it was inverted, causing him to be forced through the damaged rear canopy, coming to rest about 325 feet from the aircraft. But, the board found his seat was activated by debris in the aircraft after the collision.
The AIB found no evidence maintenance, for either aircraft, was a factor in the accident.
The board noted Kincade was “current in all flight events,” with more than 984 hours in the T-38, including more than 736 hours as an instructor. He also had time as a pilot in F-18 and F-16C aircraft and had logged more than 3,205 hours of military flight time.
Wilkie was noted for above average performance in the T-6 portion of his flight training, and “had a stellar reputation as hard worker who put forth large amounts of effort in studying,” according to the report.
“However,” the board added, “several T-38C IPs (instructor pilots) noted he struggled to maintain adequate situational awareness (SA) in the dynamic environment of high performance T-38C flying.”
According to the board report, Wilkie had one unsatisfactory sortie during his transition to the T-38, and three sorties prior to the accident all had been unsatisfactory. The fatal last sortie on Nov. 21, 2019, was meant to be the first of two additional training flights before Wilkie was slated to face an “elimination check” — a final flight that would allow him to continue, or remove him from the T-38 syllabus.
Wilkie's parents, Carlene and Don Wilkie, of San Diego, issued a statement Friday refuting the AIB conclusions “as being grossly and unjustly incomplete,” finding fault with both the age of the T-38 aircraft, which entered service in the 1960s, and the danger of formation landings.
“The report’s conclusions omit a significant, if not the primary cause which is side-by-side formation landing in a 58-year-old jet despite the report’s backup documentation shining a bright light on this dangerous and wholly unnecessary maneuver,” they wrote. “By omitting this obvious contributing cause, the Air Force is not compelled with sufficient urgency and transparency to reassess the cost-benefit of student fighter pilots, and for that matter instructor pilots, engaging in an inherently dangerous practice with no continuing practical benefit to combat pilot proficiency or survivability.”
The Wilkies have called on the Air Force to eliminate T-38 formation landings from the training syllabus and to expedite the T-38's replacement with the planned T-7 Red Hawk.
The crash that killed Wilkie and Kincade was the third fatal crash involving Air Force officers in the T-38C Talon trainer jet in two years. The others occurred at Laughlin AFB in Texas in November of 2017 and November of 2018.
Air Force investigators blamed those crashes on hydraulic failure and loss of engine compression, respectively. The trainer jets were flying solo and both pilots died.
Student pilots preparing to fly fighter jets typically train in the T-38Cs during the third and final phase of their training program. Different versions of the plane have been used to train fighter pilots since the 1960s, but it is scheduled to be replaced by the T-7 Red Hawk in the next three years.
The T-38C Talon is a twin-engine, supersonic jet trainer made by Northrup Grumman.
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