EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - After several months of investigation, officials have finally released the cause of the Thunderbird crash that happened during the Air Force Academy’s graduation in June.
They determined that a throttle trigger malfunction and an inadvertent throttle rotation was the cause of the F-16CM’s emergency landing just south of the Colorado Springs Airport.
The throttle controls the flow of fuel to the engine.
In a 34-page document released Wednesday by Virginia-based Air Combat Command, they explained that the problem occurred when the pilot began landing procedures:
“...the pilot inadvertently rotated the throttle, placing it into an engine cut-off position. Normally, this full rotation cannot occur unless a throttle trigger is affirmatively actuated or pressed. However, the throttle trigger was “stuck” in the “pressed” position. The accident investigation board observed debris accumulation in the throttle trigger, combined with wear on the trigger assembly.”
Essentially, experts said, the malfunction caused the pilot to shut off his engine instead of gradually powering down for a landing at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.
The pilot, Maj. James Turner, was able to navigate his aircraft onto a grass field, safely away from homes, and then eject, receiving only a minor injury.
The aircraft, valued at $29 million, was destroyed, according to Air Combat Command, but the debris remains at Peterson Air Force Base, awaiting shipment to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico for use as training material.
The report also found that maintenance is inconsistent on F-16 throttle assemblies, and asked Air Force technicians to correct the matter.
Many observers believed the crashed jet, and others in the squadron, were low on fuel that day but the report indicates lack of fuel was not a factor.
Alex Gorski, a commercial pilot and retired air traffic controller in Colorado Springs, studied the report.
"It did what it was supposed to do," he said. "There were no surprises. What happened to the Thunderbird could have happened to any aircraft. I don't think the F-16 should be grounded. The Air Force will look at all of them closely to keep a crash from happening again. It's dependable and the workhorse of the Air Force."
More than 4,500 F-16s have been built for the Air Force since the mid-1970s, including updated versions.
The Air Force plans to replace the fleet in 2025.