A crash that killed a US Air Force student pilot and wrecked two supersonic training jets Friday, Nov. 19, bears a startling resemblance to a crash in 2019 that prompted the Air Force to ban “formation landing” maneuvers for student pilots.
But five days after the crash that killed 2nd Lt. Anthony Wentz, the Air Force has not said whether the two crashes are related or whether they occurred during similar maneuvers. Photos of the crash sites show similar wreckage patterns. Coffee or Die Magazine asked Air Force officials whether last week’s crash involved similar circumstances to the 2019 crash, including the use of so-called formation landings in training, but officials said no details were available, citing ongoing safety investigations.
News helicopter video of the crash site at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, last week shows an aftermath almost identical to that of the 2019 crash in Oklahoma, with two wrecked T-38s on or just off a runway, one upside down, the other right side up but with clear evidence of an impact.
An unanswered question about Friday’s crash is whether the two jets were performing a formation landing, a maneuver at the heart of the 2019 crash that the Air Force subsequently banned from pilot training. In the 2019 mishap, according to a USAF Aircraft Accident Investigation Board report, two T-38 training jets at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma crashed while executing a formation landing in which two planes land nearly side by side on the same runway. As they touched down, the board found, the student pilot in one jet lost control of his plane, causing it to sideswipe the other jet and flip upside down. The second plane managed to roll to a halt, with the instructor pilot in that plane escaping injury.
The pilots in the upside-down plane in 2019, student 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, and instructor Lt. Col. John Kincade, 47, were both killed. The Air Force’s report largely blamed the pilots for the crash, citing incorrect actions by Wilkie during the landing and a failure to correct them quickly by Kincade. However, Wilkie’s family slammed the report, releasing a statement.
“The report’s conclusions omit a significant, if not the primary, accident 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,” Wilkie’s family said.
The Air Force stopped formation landings in pilot training after the 2019 crash and in 2020 made the change permanent during new pilot training, which the Air Force calls Undergraduate Pilot Training, or UPT. Both Vance and Laughlin are home to UPT training programs with T-38s.
Formation landings are a long-standing tactic for smaller aircraft like fighters. Pilots said the maneuver might be employed for a pilot with malfunctioning navigation systems to “follow” another plane onto a runway in bad weather, or to land large numbers of aircraft quickly, such as a strike package returning from a mission when all planes are low on fuel. However, according to Air Force flight manuals for the T-38, the maneuver requires significant pilot qualifications and can only be used in low-wind conditions on approved runways.
Speculation this week on aviation boards frequented by former and current pilots is that the two planes in Texas were engaged in some formation event, either a landing or takeoff. There are several possible explanations for how the planes could have ended up in a mishap that mirrored the 2019 crash. The Texas planes could have been taking off rather than landing, or the pair could have been executing a modified version of a formation landing, in which the plane flown by the instructor descends with the student’s plane but does not actually land, jetting away just prior to touchdown.
Coffee or Die Magazine asked Air Force officials at Laughlin Air Force Base and at Air Education and Training Command — which oversees all pilot training — about the similarities between the 2019 crash and last week’s. Spokespeople for both said repeatedly that no details on the crash could be released — including whether the planes were landing or taking off — until an initial safety investigation was completed.
The Air Force did confirm for Coffee or Die that one aircraft in the Texas crash had two pilots aboard while the other had a single occupant. The official would not confirm which aircraft Wentz was in.