Report: Texas T-38s Were in ‘Formation Approach,’ Not Landing

December 6, 2021Dustin Jones
formation approach mishap

A T-38 trainer sits upside down on the runway at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. The mishap, which involved another T-38, killed a student pilot, 2nd Lt. Anthony Wentz. Image via 9News.Com.

The two Air Force T-38 trainers that crashed at Laughlin Air Force Base on Nov. 19 were conducting a formation approach — a difficult but permitted maneuver — when the crash occurred, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The incident killed one student pilot and left two other pilots injured, one in critical condition. There have been 15 T-38C crashes in the past decade, and nine pilots have died in such crashes.

According to the Express-News, two sources familiar with the incident confirmed the two aircraft were conducting a formation approach when the accident occurred. The mishap killed student pilot 2nd Lt. Anthony Wentz and critically wounded another pilot aboard (students usually fly with instructor pilots). Vice Commander of the 47th Flying Training Wing Col. Nathan A. Thompson, Laughlin’s second in command, was piloting the second jet and walked away from the crash.

The Air Force has released few details about the incident, citing an ongoing safety investigation. The Air Force would not confirm whether the mishap took place during a takeoff or landing.

formation approach mishap
A standard training T-38 flight on May 20, 2021, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. The T-38 is the standard aircraft for training pilots who are tracking in the fighter aircraft. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class David Phaff.

The T-38 entered service in 1970 and remains the primary trainer for pilots who will eventually fly fighter jets and bombers. The safety of the aircraft has come into question surrounding fatal mishaps. Nine pilots have been killed in 15 mishaps between 2010 and 2021, according to a report by the Aviation Safety Network.

Photos from the November crash site show wreckage patterns similar to those of another T-38 incident that killed two pilots conducting a formation landing at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in 2019. The Air Force banned formation landings for student pilots in T-38s in the wake of that crash.

According to the Express-News, the recent crash involved a formation approach, a maneuver in which two aircraft descend toward a runway together, as if they are going to land in formation. But one or both of the planes fly off before touching down.

Boeing was granted a $9.2 billion contract in 2018 to replace the T-38 with the T-7A Red Hawk. Student pilots will begin transitioning to the new aircraft in 2023, according to an Air Force news release.

Read Next: Investigation: Hundreds of Military Explosives Missing, Some May Have Killed Innocents

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones

Dustin Jones is a former senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine covering military and intelligence news. Jones served four years in the Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. He has worked as a reporter in Southwest Montana and at NPR. A New Hampshire native, Dustin currently resides in Southern California.

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