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 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.
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.
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.