For those of us fortunate enough to take in an Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration (or a Blue Angels show if the Navy is your thing), it’s been an upward view to a rare display of precision flying and aerobatic skill. The team hones their show to a razor’s edge, flying all sorts of different formations in very close proximity at very high speed. Split-second timing and absolute commitment are required to bring off the various maneuvers. Accidents in this arena are ones from which a pilot rarely walks away.
And sadly, we discuss it again for Today’s History Lesson.
January 18, 1982 marks the date of the USAF Thunderbirds’ worst flying accident. Tragedy was no stranger to this particular group of men, as they were still coping with the loss of their leader in an air show just five months prior, and another member four months before that. But it was time to prepare for a new season, and that meant dusting off their Northrop T-38 Talons and getting to work.
The Talon was a very capable little bird, used primarily as a trainer. It delivered good power from its two small engines, but wasn’t so powerful (as say, an F-15 or 16) as to get away from a trainee. It was not blessed with tremendous top speed, but it was very maneuverable, which allowed for a more pleasing (read: acrobatic) air show than the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs (a relative pig in the air) they replaced. And they kept the front-line aircraft on the front lines.
One of the signature Thunderbirds formations (and it’s probably used by every aerobatics group) is the Diamond. Four aircraft fly in a baseball-diamond-shaped formation only a few feet apart, and they usually maintain that formation all the way through a loop. The lead pilot guides the formation, while the other three have their eyes locked onto him, oblivious to all else, including their distance from the ground. Their jobs are to maintain a precise position to the lead, regardless of what he does. It’s a high-speed version of follow-the-leader.
That’s all well and good…unless something goes wrong with the lead aircraft, and that’s what seems to have happened on this particular day. Apparently #1’s pitch control actuator wasn’t functioning properly and, rather than pull out of the bottom of the loop at about 100 feet above the ground, Major Norm Lowry’s plane continued into the ground.
Captains Mays, Peterson, and Melancon, piloting the #2, #3, and #4 aircraft, probably only had a split second to realize there was problem before they, too, followed their leader into the Arizona ground around Davis-Monthan AFB. All four pilots were killed instantly, and 1982’s Thunderbirds season ended before it even began.
The “Diamond Crash” sparked heated debate as to the value of these exhibition teams. In less than a year, the Thunderbirds had lost millions of dollars of aircraft and, much worse, six highly-trained pilots. Families were being devastated, pilots lost, and dollars wasted on what amounted to 90 minutes of “hot-shot stunt pilot antics”.
Congress disagreed with the rhetoric, and allowed the teams to continue. The Thunderbirds returned in 1983 with a new team and a new steed…the F-16 Fighting Falcon. But there is no doubt that 1982 was a terribly tragic year for the Thunderbirds.