T-38 crash investigation complete

Military aircraft accidents/mishaps.
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MKopack

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Unread post08 May 2006, 19:55

T-38 crash investigation complete

By Bill Sontag
Del Rio News-Herald

Published May 7, 2006

A dangerous crash of a T-38C “Talon” jet from Laughlin Air Force Base in December has been exhaustively scrutinized by the Air Force, searching for causes and remedies. Last week, the official report was released, including important findings for future training.

An Accident Investigation Board (AIB) convened immediately after the crash, and a dissection of interviews and reports began to piece together intricate details of what went wrong with “Cool 58.” That was the call sign for the sleek, gray, high performance trainer jet flown by Instructor Pilot Maj. Marc Montgomery and Student Pilot 2nd Lt. Jonathan Ballard.

Montgomery is an experienced senior pilot with more than 3,700 flying hours in the A-10 “Thunderbolt,” the F-15C “Eagle,” and the T-38C “Talon.” He’s a member of the 96th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin, a reserve unit that, among other duties, provides instructors for the training squadrons of the 47th Flying Training Wing.

Ballard was a student in Class 06-04 at the time of the accident, and well on his way to a career as an Air Force fighter pilot.

At 3:05 p.m., Dec. 13, 2005, Montgomery and Ballard took off from Laughlin’s runways, working toward a “low level flight” exercise east of the base. According to the AIB report, mission planning and preflight activities were all conducted normally and on time, and nothing extraordinary was noted in the first four legs of the exercise.

But on the next run, Ballard, flying the “Talon,” noticed two large birds just in front of the aircraft. Montgomery said Friday that they were seen perhaps no more than ten feet off the nose of the jet, and in less than a split second, a black vulture smashed into the cockpit canopy, and “Cool 58” was in very serious trouble.

“The bird hit the top of the canopy, and created what we call a ‘sun roof,’” Montgomery smiled. But he had another name for the shock of wind and noise that instantly invaded the flight environment. “We equated it to the bottom of a rollercoaster ride,” he said, smiling less now.

Barely 500 feet above the desert scrub below, and rocketing at 450 miles-per-hour, the vulture disintegrated on impact, but not without shattering cockpit Plexiglas across Ballard and Montgomery, both struggling to see instruments, ground, even each other in the sudden blast of wind and debris.

Montgomery took over the jet’s controls, and began a climb to higher altitude. “The first reaction for me, as in instructor pilot, is to get away from the ground, and analyze the situation.”

But, the AIB report counters, “The flight characteristics of the MA [mishap aircraft] during the initial climb and the following 45-second period of relatively level flight caused the MIP [mishap instructor pilot, Mongomery] to incorrectly perceive a lack of thrust and throttle response.”

In the chaos of the next minute, Montgomery strove to assess the condition of his engines, slowing to what proved to be a near-fatal speed. The AIB report concluded that the engines were functioning normally, but did not appear that way to Montgomery. Had he set the throttle for maximum power, the report concludes, Montgomery might have been able to stabilize the jet.

But the slowed engines sent the “Talon” into a steep angle, and eventually a stall from which there was insufficient altitude to correct. “Cool 58” slammed into ranchland _ mile south of U.S. Highway 90 East, five miles east of Bracketville.

Montgomery correctly deduced that his bird was going down and ordered Ballard to eject. When he saw that his student was clear, Ballard pulled the twin triggers on either side of his cockpit seat, and was blasted clear of the doomed jet only 523 feet above the ground. Seconds later, he was blasted again, free of the seat, and his chute deployed into a welcome fabric dome overhead.

But then Montgomery looked down. He was floating – quickly – into the fireball fed by fuel from the crashed, utterly demolished jet, valued at $6.3 million only minutes before the bird strike. But saving his student’s life and now his own were the priorities of the moment, and Montgomery’s was clearly threatened.

He struggled, tugging at a chute riser to slide away from the flames, but to no avail. Montgomery estimates he was 50 to 100 feet above the ground when he entered the flames.

The fireball melted his chute, turning it into what pilots call a useless “streamer,” increasing, of course, the impact of a landing.

Landing in a blazing mesquite, Montgomery’s foot was shattered, vertebrae in his back had collapsed from the violent impact during his rocketing ejection, and before Ballard could pull him from the fire, Montgomery received second- and third-degree burns over 17 percent of his body.

“But Ballard got me clear of the brush, and he continued to direct air traffic to our location on his radio,” Montgomery explained.

His fire-retardant flight suit provided good protection, but he was not freed from the fire before the fabric was damaged enough to allow both arms, his lower back and hip to be badly singed.

Worse, with the force of wind the visor on his helmet flipped into an up position, and flames severely scorched Montgomery’s face. Now it’s only an angry red mask he is confident will heal completely, a contradiction to his otherwise congenial countenance of gratitude and optimism.

From the time Ballard extricated his teacher from the burning brush, Montgomery has no recollection of events, “Until I woke up at BAMC [Brooks Army Medical Center],” Montgomery said ruefully.

The irony he still ponders is that emergency medical attendants inform him that he remained conscious and talking during the carryout to an ambulance and the entire airlift flight to San Antonio.
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Unread post08 May 2006, 19:56

T-38 ‘Talon’ crash offers lessons learned

By Bill Sontag
Del Rio News-Herald

Published May 8, 2006

Seconds after a five-pound black vulture smashed through the transparent canopy of the T-38C “Talon” jet, Maj. Marc Montgomery, instructor pilot in the 96th Flying Training Squadron, took control of the aircraft from his student pilot, 2nd Lt. Jonathan Ballard.

Montgomery tried to right the plane, and head back to Laughlin Air Force Base to salvage the luckless low-level exercise begun there about 3 p.m., Dec. 13, 2005.

But he and Ballard were forced to bail out, abandoning a jet Montgomery concluded was unresponsive and going down.

Friday, the amiable pilot, still showing purplish burn scars on his face as result of parachuting into wreckage flames, described the chaos that followed the mid-air collision.

“It was an explosion, like a cannonball hitting a car windshield. It was very loud, and we had Plexiglas and bird going everywhere,” Montgomery said.

The Air Force Accident Investigation Board (AIB), presided over by Col. Randell S. Meyer, examined in nearly excruciating detail every second-by-second aspect of the crash, relying on official, though telling language throughout the 32-page report.

“The chaotic environment (ruptured canopy, perceived aircraft performance, low altitude) degraded the (instructor pilot’s) ability to calmly and accurately complete his analysis.

“Channelized attention, task saturation and other human factors led the [instructor pilot] to focus solely on engine analysis to the exclusion of the [aircraft’s] airspeed, altitude, and eventual stall characteristics, committing the mishap crew to a low altitude ejection at 523 feet [above the ground].”

But Montgomery’s boss, Lt. Col. George Fenimore, commander of the 96th FTS, emphasized the importance of what happened next, during and after the decision to eject.

“Once he pulled the triggers, everything worked perfectly,” Fenimore said Friday night.

His admiration focuses on the rapid responses from Laughlin tower, aircraft and on-scene commanders who flew to the burning wreckage and guided emergency medical workers into the site.

Fenimore also lavished praise on the workmanship of those who facilitated Montgomery’s and Ballard’s safe ejection from the doomed “Talon.”

“Only through the diligent efforts of others, actions that may seem so routine, is Marc still with us today,” said Fenimore.

It started with Ballard, who ejected safely and away from the flames that greeted Montgomery because he delayed his own bailout until he saw Ballard clear of the cockpit.

Ballard landed safely, began contacting Laughlin with a handset radio in his parachute pack, and ran to pull Montgomery out of a burning mesquite tree.

Then, a progression of overhead incident commanders, emergency medical personnel in an ambulance and a flight-for-life helicopter to San Antonio cared for Montgomery, badly injured with many broken bones and burns.

He knows they did, but he remembers nothing, despite reports that Montgomery remained conscious, conversant and alert during the entire trip.

It is almost a certainty, said Dr. Shamoon Doctor, a Del Rio physician, that Montgomery was given pain control injections almost immediately.

Many of those have amnesiac qualities that would permit Montgomery to be comfortable, but awake.

“Even during surgery sometimes, we have patients that are just chatting away, eyes open, asking us questions carrying on conversation, but they are amnesic at the time,” said Doctor, Sunday.

Montgomery cannot praise the quality of care enough to satisfy his amazement at the treatment he received at Brooke Army Medical Center, one of the notable burn treatment centers in the world.

“The people at BAMC are amazing! A visit there will change your life. If you’re ever depressed, just go visit a burn ward. You’ll come out feeling that people are really fairly impressive after all,” Montgomery exclaimed.

There, in addition to world-class treatment of his burns, Montgomery’s two broken vertebrae were removed, stainless steel cages connected the gap which was filled with bone cement, to be eventually replaced with living bone tissue.

He learned that burn rehabilitation dramatically saps the body’s muscles and other tissue.

Legs and arms appeared to atrophy, despite huge intake of nutrition.

“I was eating 6,000 calories a day, and still was losing weight,” Montgomery said.

Physical therapy was nearly a constant in his time at BAMC, made short because he was so aggressive about it.

Such injuries normally require months of convalescence at BAMC. But Montgomery came home after three weeks, largely because his wife, Kathleen, was with him almost constantly, participating in the therapy.

Montgomery’s gratitude extends to the entire Laughlin-Del Rio community.

While he recuperated with Kathleen’s help, friends, neighbors and family helped care for the couple’s children, Sascha, 13, Nicholas, 11, Madison, 9, and Rory, 2.

“Base wives were actually vying to cook meals for us, and others kept the yard mowed,” Montgomery said.

A local pet boarding business cared for the family’s animals, elementary schoolchildren brought him a portfolio of “Get well” wishes, and “The mailman still shows up regularly, just to see how I’m doing.”

Montgomery’s profound gratitude begins at Laughlin, with his almost passionate admiration for the people that pack parachutes and maintain ejection seats.

In his case, the chute that saved his life was packed by 11-year packing veteran Lilly Gallegos, and the ejection seat was in perfect working order thanks to egress technician Tim Nierenhausen, both civil service employees at Laughlin.

Gallegos, a native of Piedras Negras, was a bundle of nerves when she learned her chute had deployed for a downed pilot.

Friday, she explained that each chute, a 45-pound package, requires about four hours of work, more if a new harness has to be attached.

Nierenhausen said he spent about a day-and-a-half before the ill-fated flight, conducting a “minor PE” (physical examination) of Montgomery’s 120-pound ejection seat, involving removal from the jet, thorough scrutiny and repairs as needed.

“That’s what we’re all about,” said Nierenhausen, “Saving pilot’s lives to keep them with their families.”

Montgomery expects to return to flying duty as soon as metal screws are removed from his once-shattered foot and healing is complete.

Ballard is now assigned to the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, and will return to LAFB as a T-38 instructor when he graduates from instructor school there. Ballard was on a cross-country training flight at press time, and not available for comment on the crash.

The Accident Investigation Board commented that training for student pilots flying the T-38 “Talon” does not include coursework or flying simulation experience that might prepare them for the chaos, confusion and perceptual difficulties of a thoroughly compromised cockpit.

Montgomery believes that gap might be rectified as a result of his experiences and the careful examinations and results revealed in the AIB report.

But his gratitude to all who helped keep him alive, due to actions before the incident, during and since, are a key focus for Montgomery now.

“When people do something to help somebody out, it may seem like a small thing, like you’re not doing that much, but you are. With all the support my family and I have had, it was easy to get back,” Montgomery said.
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Unread post08 May 2006, 20:28

What these articles did not say but the accident report did (and I got this from Public Affairs releases, not confidential info) was that the "loss of thrust" was really a massive increase in drag due to the sudden cabriolet nature of the aircraft (i.e. no canopy), especially noticeable at 450 kts. Seems it never occurred to anyone to train for this in the Sim so it was not recognized in the "the chaotic environment" at the time; but according to the article they will start immediately (probably have to reprogram the Sim first though...).
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