The T-Bird Crash at Indian Springs

INDIAN SPRINGS, Nev., Jan. 18, 1982— At 0923 PST, four T-38A’s (68-8156, 8175, 8176 & 8184) from an Air Force Thunderbirds Team crashed, one after another, into the Nevada desert, killing all four pilots.

The Diamond taking off from Nellis AFB on the day of the mishap.

The Air Force said the four planes struck nose-first into the sand while practicing a ”loop” maneuver, . ”The pilot farthest to the east hit the ground first and the other three followed within a tenth of a second, flying in formation,” said Tom Sullivan of Boulder City, Nev., who was driving to a construction job in the area at the time.

The formation was in a “Diamond” when it struck the ground.  Many reports said they were line abreast but they began the loop line abreast and transitioned to a Diamond on the downside of the loop.

The four pilots died instantly: Major Norm Lowry, III, leader, 37, of Radford, Virginia; Captain Willie Mays, left-wing, 31, of Ripley, Tennessee; Captain Joseph “Pete” Peterson, right-wing, 32, of Tuskegee, Alabama; and Captain Mark E. Melancon, slot, 31, of Dallas, Texas.

This is an aerial shot of the crash site.

The Crash occurred at Indian Springs Auxillary Field (Later: Creech AFB).  The formation struck the ground South of Runway 08/26 and North of the parking apron.  “At the speed, they were going when they came out of the loop, I just thought, That’s the end of that for them fellows,” said W.G. Wood of Indian Springs, who witnessed the crash as he drove along U.S. 95. “It happened so fast I couldn’t tell you if one hit sooner. It looked like all of them hit at the same time.”

A resident across the highway from the auxiliary base where the flight team practiced said he heard the whine of the red, white and blue jets as they climbed to a high arch, then the scream of the engines as they plunged downward to complete the maneuver.

“Then boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom as they hit the ground one after another,” said Loren Conaway.

As in any Thunderbird practice, the mishap was videotaped.  Tech Sergeant Alfred King was videotaping the practice for later review.  However, on the Order of General Wilbur (Bill) Creech, Commander, Tactical Air Command the tapes were destroyed.

T-Bird-Crash-Tape-19820118 (1)

After much effort, I came up with the Mishap Report. The Board was convened on 1 FEB 1982.

Cutting to the chase, these were the Board Findings:


 Thunderbird Briefing starts at 8:32.


In January 1982, I was assigned to the T-38 Section at  Laughlin AFB, Texas.  I distinctly remember a Valentine’s Day BBQ being fucked up as I was selected to accompany QA (I was the T-38 Section BPO Trainer) to inspect the stab interconnect bell cranks for cracks and installation.  This was in response to an Emergency Action TCTO. Out of 144 aircraft, two bell cranks on each aircraft, we found cracks in six.  Also, there were many cases of improper safety wire jobs.

By March, the T-38 maintenance community was convinced that failure of the stab interconnects led to loss of pitch control in Thunderbird #1.  The other pilots were “flying paint” meaning they were concentrating on aircraft position in the formation and trusted the Lead to maneuver correctly.  They never felt a thing.

The Thunderbirds are a quirky bunch.  They do not call in-flight emergencies.  They do have “precautionary landings”.  They defend their maintenance mercilessly. Reading the report, you see it leaning towards “pilot error”.  But I draw your attention to the Board Findings above.  Specifically the redacted sixth finding.  I’m pretty sure that it addressed the stab interconnect issue. They blame the trim actuators malfunctioning and distracting Lead’s attention at a critical moment.  They were barreling down at the ground and I can assure you that from interviewing T-Birds that the attention of the leader is focused solely on missing the ground.  The ground always a PK factor of 1.0. Probably of Kill.  The Leader continuously talks to the team so that all actions are coordinated.  Much of the T-Bird training is the Leader learning a cadence and the team learning to follow the cadence.  The video below are F-16’s but gives a good example of this cadence.

The report says that they stayed in the abreast loop formation, but just looking at the ground scars anyone can tell they were not in line abreast at impact. I can personally attest that the grass never regrew in that area. As a result of the crash, over the field practices are limited.  Most training now occurs north of Peanut Hill where a simulated airfield is set up.

The mascot of the Indian Springs High School are the Thunderbirds.  The team visits the school regularly.

This mural is in the cafeteria of the Indian Springs School.  Notice that the Diamond is missing and the solos (with wrong numbers) are still there.  On the day of the Diamond crash, the solos were practicing at Nellis AFB. When asked why the four aircraft were missing, the reason given was the artist ran out of room.  This mural was painted before the crash.




If you’ve spent any time in the military you know it’s a true war/sea story when it starts, “This is no shit”.
This is no shit.

I was stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base outside of Del Rio Texas. I was the swing shift supervisor in Whiskey Flight. Having worked on F-4 Phantoms I was still getting used to working on T-38’s. They’re so cute and dinky compared to the Phantom.


We were launching the afternoon go’s and I was walking up and down the line when Airman Woods attracted my attention. He had his jet up and running and there was a leak coming off the belly. I stepped in and took over the launch. On the T 38 you do not use a comm cord that allows you to talk to the pilot. All communication is done with hand signals. I reverted to my F-4 experience and figured the seals needed to be set. I signaled the student in the front seat to rev up the engines to 80%. When he did that, the leak stopped. I signaled the pilot to reduce power and when he did the leak resumed.

It was at this point that I wanted to go underneath and see what was leaking. I signaled for the crew to put their hands up indicating that I was going to go underneath the airplane. You don’t want to have the crew messing with anything while you’re under there. When both the student and his instructor had their hands up, I proceeded to go under the airplane. I was just under the speed brakes, looking at this leak and still couldn’t figure it out. It was too far forward for me to touch, so I popped out and went back to the front of the airport. I signaled again for the power to be run up and once again the leak stopped. When the pilot throttled back the leak reappeared.

We went to the pilot’s hands up thing again. This time Airman Woods followed me underneath. Once again, I found myself under the speed brakes. The leak had propagated down the belly and I could reach it. I did a taste test and found out it was water from the air conditioning system.


I turned to Woods and said,” It’s fucking water. Let’s go.” He turned and bumped into me as I tripped over the mooring chain. As I fell towards the nose of the airplane, I heard the engine powering up. The suction of the engine grabbed me by the epaulets of my field jacket and started dragging me to the front of the airplane. The engine inlet of the T-38 is rather small and I was thinking, “This is going to suck”. I figured I was about to stop up the left engine intake and stall out the motor.

Sucked Up

That didn’t happen. The engine bent me over backwards and I was going down the intake. I felt like Quint at the end of “Jaws”. Being sucked into an intake is a job hazard when you crew jets. In the F-4’s, we had many discussions and opinions on what one should do when facing this situation. The first idea was to aim for the bellows probe and hang on for Dear Life. If you missed that, the idea was to get your arms out in front and sacrifice your arms to the engine before it ate anything vital like your head. Neither option was available to me. As I went into the intake all I could think was,” Be big like a puffer fish.” My head wound up being like that playing card in the spokes of your bike. I lasted about a 10th of a second and passed out.

Airman Woods

Legend has it that I went in up to my waist or my knees, depending on who saw it happen. Airman Woods yanked me out of the intake and threw me to the ground. Woody was a tall lanky good old boy from Arkansas. I remember laying there on my left side completely calm wondering if I was dead or not. The liquid I could feel streaming from my nose I assumed was blood but turned out to be snot. My eyes were shuttered open and I couldn’t seem to blink. Remember Woody down on his hands and knees pounding the ground with his fists screaming, “Please be alive Walt. Please be alive!” He had a great southern drawl. I remember calmly thinking, “I’m pretty sure I’m alive but I’ll be dead if someone doesn’t treat be for shock please put my legs up”.


The first people that are to arrive at the scene were the fire department. I could tell because the silver pants walked past me. They went straight to the student sitting in the front seat. He was frozen with his hands on the throttle and the stick with piss in his pants. They start to pull him out of the seat. The second people to arrive at the scene where the medics because they had white pants. I remember them asking, “Who is this guy on the ground?” At that point I started convulsing and thought, “Oh good I’m going into shock I wonder if somebody will notice”. At this point I pass out.

So there... (click to enlarge)

I wake up in the ambulance and was wearing an oxygen mask with one of the medics leaning over me screaming, “You’re going to make it buddy! You’re gonna make it!” Years later I learned that’s exactly what you’re not supposed to tell the victim. But at the time I thought, “Okay I’ll try” and then passed out again.

My Wife Hears the News

When the accident happened, my next-door neighbor called my wife who lived in base housing with me and told her there’s been an accident and I’d been sent to the hospital. With a one-year old baby in his crib she put down the phone and walked out the door. She walked up the street to the hospital. When she walked into the ER there is a bunch of brass in the ER waiting room from the Wing Commander on down trying to figure out what happened. Rumors I to put a ladder up to the cockpit or the Comm Cord that nobody uses had pulled me in. My wife was an Army brat and daughter of a Colonel. She screamed, “Where the Hell Is My Husband!” They ushered her into me. Like I said, I was awake by then and when she walked in, she wordlessly checked me out. Arm, arm, leg, leg, Dick. Then she asked what happened. I told her I had totally Fucked Up. She didn’t reply as I got wheeled out to x-ray. As I was rolling along, I reached into my pocket and handed the doctor my car keys. At the time my key chain was adorned with a 20 mm cannon shell which of course was dummy, but the Lt. Col. didn’t know that and all he said was okay.


They kept me in the ICU overnight for observation. In the early evening the instructor came to visit me. His name was Capt. Love. He asked if I needed anything and I said I really needed my glasses. I told him I was really upset because I thought I destroyed an airplane. He reassured me that it was not my fault. The student had said he saw an anomaly at 80% and ran the engine up on his own to check it. It was then that Capt. Love noticed an engine fluctuation on the left side and heard the bang, bang as my ear protectors and glasses hit the compressor. He counted up his crew chiefs and was one short. He immediately throttled back the left engine which allowed Woody to pull me out but being in the backseat he had no way to actual way to turn the engine off.

There is a God and He likes me.

I didn’t have my eyeballs sucked out of my head or my lungs sucked out and of course I didn’t die. The only injuries I sustained was a concussion and all the hair follicles in my ears were sucked out. Losing the follicles would give me raging ear infections for the next few years. I’d have to go to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base to have my ears sucked out to control the infection. On one trip, the airman vacuuming my ear busted my eardrums. You know those times when your vacuuming a throw rug and it gets stuck on the vacuum? That’s what happened my eardrum.


Years later I was still assigned to Laughlin and would hear stories about the guy that got killed in Whiskey flight when he was sucked up into the engine. I always asked, “Was there a lot of blood?” And they would say, “Yeah”. The airmen in Whiskey flight celebrated the incident by painting a little green man inside the nose wheel well. The T-38A was 64-3228 and is now in the bone yard in New Mexico with a little green man in its wheel well.