• U.S.

The Deadly Trainer

13 minute read
Mark Thompson

Terri Weber’s last conversation with her son Pace took place just as his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot was taking off. But she heard something besides excitement in her son’s voice. “Our planes are having a lot of mechanical problems,” Pace told his mom from his Air Force Academy dorm last June, four days before he was due home on his summer break. His plane’s engine had unexpectedly conked out in mid-flight, forcing the instructor to grab the controls and make an emergency landing. “Sometimes it’s scary,” Pace said over the phone. “When we land, I’m really sweating.” Terri recalls listening to her firstborn in her darkened living room and saying, “It sounds like there are a lot of problems, so be really careful. I want you home in one piece.” Forty-eight hours later, an Air Force officer knocked at the door of Weber’s Miami town house, rousing her out of bed. He told her that her son’s airplane had crashed earlier that day, killing him instantly.

The most dangerous plane to fly in the U.S. Air Force today isn’t the screaming F-15 Eagle, the Baghdad-bombing F-117 Nighthawk or the thunderous B-1 Lancer. In fact, it’s not a jet at all but the first plane fledgling pilots fly–the powerful, propeller-driven trainer flown by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Six people–three cadets and their instructor pilots–have died in three crashes of the T-3 Firefly trainer since the planes began flying there in 1995. The T-3’s crash record is all the more startling because from 1964 to 1994, cadets flew the trainer’s predecessor, the T-41, without a single fatality. But in 1995, the Air Force Academy said goodbye to the plodding T-41 and its sturdy safety record, replacing it with the muscular T-3.

That decision is starting to look like a mistake. A TIME investigation, based on dozens of interviews as well as a review of Air Force documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests that the T-3 is a plane too perilous for veteran pilots, much less beginners, to fly. Its single engine has failed 66 times, nearly half of them during flight or at perilous moments like takeoffs and landings. Its brakes are so poor that the Air Force has banned student solo flights out of concern that a novice can’t bring the plane to a full stop without rolling off the end of the runway. The Air Force has grounded the 110-plane fleet for 10 different modifications in an effort to solve the mechanical problems. And in December, after TIME asked a series of questions about the T-3, acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters ordered a comprehensive review of the aircraft’s purchase, testing and operation.

The T-3’s introduction to Air Force training was a particular passion of General Merrill McPeak, the service’s chief of staff in the early 1990s. McPeak, a fighter pilot who had flown with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s precision-flying team, is now retired but still flies his own homemade, acrobatic RV-4 aircraft. “The T-41 is your grandmother’s airplane,” says McPeak of the T-3’s predecessor. “Our mission is to train warrior-pilots, not dentists to fly their families to Acapulco.”

The old T-41, he argued, taught students to fly only straight and level, and didn’t teach cadets the building blocks of military flying, including a dizzying array of loops, rolls and spins. With the T-3, the Air Force could offer what it called an “enhanced flight-screening program,” which could pinpoint “those cadets who have the basic aptitude to become Air Force pilots.” McPeak encouraged his service to buy a trainer that could spin, the wing tips tracing a circle after the plane has lost, at least temporarily, its ability to remain aloft. It is a maneuver so dangerous that Air Force fighter pilots are under orders to eject if one occurs. But McPeak believes that a pilot who doesn’t fear spins–and knows how to get out of them–is a better pilot, even if they’re done only during training.

The Air Force brass, eager to please the boss, bought the 1,750-lb. English-manufactured Slingsby T-3 and made it mandatory for all cadets to fly the craft if they want to earn their wings. It is a tiny plane, half the length and one-tenth the weight of the F-16, the Air Force’s smallest fighter. But its standard, 160-hp engine was not powerful enough to do spins and loops in the thin Rocky Mountain air over the mile-high academy. So a 7.7-liter, 260-hp engine was crammed into the 25-ft.-long plastic fuselage. With its enhanced power, the two-seat T-3 can fly 200 m.p.h. and make gut-wrenching turns in which the crew endures up to six times the force of gravity.

But the new T-3 spooked some instructors shortly after cadets started flying it in January 1995. At a meeting a week before the first crash, several grumbled that the T-3 lacked parachutes. “It’s crazy that we don’t fly with parachutes,” said one of the instructors present, Captain Dan Fischer. “It’s an FAA regulation if you do acrobatics.” Air Force superiors said the service didn’t have to obey Federal Aviation Administration rules even though the T-3, unlike most Air Force planes, is registered with the FAA. Back at his apartment, Fischer was blunter. “Someone’s going to die before they get rid of these spins,” he told his roommate, also a T-3 pilot. “And it’s not going to be me.”

His foresight didn’t save him. On Feb. 22, 1995, Fischer, 29, and Cadet Mark Dostal, 20, were killed when their T-3 corkscrewed into the ground about 50 miles east of the academy. Dostal, of Moraga, Calif., was a junior at the academy, where he had racked up scholastic and athletic honors. “Mark wanted to fly from the time he was a little boy,” says his mother Shirley. “He thought his best chance to fly was to go to the academy.” He had spent 11 hours learning to fly the T-3.

The Air Force investigation concluded that Dostal put the plane into a spin and that Fischer fumbled the recovery because the Air Force had not adequately trained him. The crash report said the engine was running while the plane plunged a mile in 30 sec., in 17 ever tightening spirals, into a snow-covered pasture. Yet witnesses told investigators the plane was silent as it came down. The Air Force grounded the T-3s for a week. And when they resumed flying, spins were banned.

But at least one lesson was still to be learned. When an Air Force officer briefed Shirley Dostal on the crash, she asked why her son hadn’t had a parachute. The officer explained that parachutes would be of little use in the T-3 because the plane lacked ejection seats. Five months after Mark died, another T-3 went into a spin, and the crew couldn’t recover. It was a lot like Dostal’s crash, except for one thing. It was a British T-3 flying over the English Midlands, and both pilots were wearing parachutes. They bailed out and were back at work the next day. Only then did the Air Force order parachutes for its T-3s. “It was as if the Air Force held a gun to my son’s head and pulled the trigger,” Dostal says. “This should have been a safe, learning environment instead of something thought up by some hotdogging general.”

On Sept. 30, 1996, a second T-3 crashed 30 miles east of the academy, killing Cadet Dennis Rando, 21, and his instructor, Captain Clay Smith, 28. The Air Force concluded that Rando, a senior, and Smith had been practicing a forced landing and crashed when the engine failed during a key part of the maneuver. The first expert to study the wrecked engine said it was operating at impact. But when they looked into it, Air Force investigators disputed that finding, especially when they discovered that the initial expert didn’t work for the Air Force, as they had thought, but was employed by Textron Lycoming, the engine maker. They uncovered the fact that T-3 engines had failed 53 times at the academy and at another base before the second crash. Rando’s father Paul was stunned by this information when it was relayed to him at his Massachusetts home as part of the Air Force’s standard family briefing. “How can you tell me there’s not something wrong with this goddam plane when the engine’s failed more than 50 times?” he remembers asking. “Something’s sure wrong with something.”

By late 1996, maintenance crews were making nonstop modifications to the plane’s engine, fuel system and brakes. “We’ve got this airplane practically rebuilt, but [the problems] just don’t seem to stop,” Senior Master Sergeant Michael Rutland complained to Air Force investigators looking into the second crash. “We wonder what else is wrong with it that we don’t know about.” More than half the instructor pilots, busy trying to teach others to fly, had “generalized anger” about the T-3, an Air Force psychologist reported. And the cadets were uneasy too. “With two accidents in two years, I’m not entirely sure it’s completely safe,” Cadet Daniel Ronneberg told investigators. In the wake of the accident, the Air Force barred cadets from practicing forced landings. But two days after the second crash, the T-3s were ordered back into the air.

It was in this environment that 20-year-old Pace Weber, a senior cadet, called his mother last summer and confessed his apprehension about the plane. “Since Pace was a little boy, he focused on airplanes and astronauts,” Terri Weber says. “Getting into the Air Force Academy was something he wanted since junior high.” Pace, who had spent 17 hours in the T-3, was flying last June 25 with his instructor, Captain Glen Comeaux, 31, when their T-3 sputtered during a turn at about 500 ft. It quickly entered a spin and exploded in a fireball just after hitting the ground two miles east of the academy airfield. Their plane had been written up by pilots 10 times for engine problems, including one during the flight immediately before the fatal trip. The Air Force said the engine was running at impact, although it was producing so little power that the propeller was barely turning. “If Pace was flying in the Gulf War and died, I could understand that,” his mother says. “But they were just supposed to be seeing if he could be a good pilot.”

Defenders of the plane argue that’s exactly what T-3 training is meant to accomplish. “We don’t want to kill people at the Air Force Academy, obviously,” McPeak says. “But we drove [Commerce Secretary] Ron Brown and a planeload of VIPs into the hills of Yugoslavia because of pilot error.” “We don’t want to kill a planeload of people because we haven’t properly identified the people who can do this job.” Other Air Force officers point out that the plane has flown without an accident at an Air Force base at Hondo, Texas, where the instructors, who are civilians working under contract with the Air Force, have spent years flying small, piston-powered aircraft like the T-3. “If the engine quits, we know how to land the airplane and walk away from it,” a civilian pilot at Hondo says. “The Air Force guys just know how to bail out when that happens.” McPeak, a former F-15 pilot, suggests the fact that all three dead T-3 instructor pilots flew bulky cargo planes before coming to the academy might have contributed to the accidents. “Maybe if you’d had three fighter pilots in there instead of three C-141 pilots, you wouldn’t have had the same result.”

Many T-3 pilots at both Hondo and Colorado Springs believe the plane flies much better in the lower, and heavier, Texas air than in the thin air above Colorado’s mile-high plains. Some Air Force safety experts have recommended that the entire T-3 operation be based at Hondo. “The flight school shouldn’t be in the mountains,” says one such expert. “But Annapolis has boats and West Point has cannon, and so saying you’re not going to have planes at the Air Force Academy doesn’t sound right.”

Even so, after the third crash, the pilots began to wonder just what they were flying. That accident produced the most devastating account of the T-3’s mechanical weaknesses. The official investigation disclosed that after the plane was delivered to the Air Force, manufacturer Slingsby Aviation Ltd. recommended that 119 fixes be made to improve safety. That probe and other reports showed that the Air Force had made numerous engine changes, revised its starting procedure and modified the airplane’s fuel lines and cowling, but that the motor had continued to shut down for unknown reasons. The brakes suffer from “sponginess, excessive travel and total loss of brake pressure,” the experts said. A cockpit safety alarm designed to warn of an approaching stall keeps failing because it was built to operate on 24 volts while the T-3’s electrical system produces 27. Even the plane’s rather simple but critical cockpit gauges suffer from “extremely low” reliability, investigators wrote. “I don’t know what testing went into all those different changes,” Captain Pat Derock, a T-3 instructor pilot, told Air Force investigators. “Some of the modifications were probably not completely or thoroughly tested.”

The Air Force insists they were. A week after the third fatal crash in 28 months, the planes were ordered back into the air. The Air Force finally grounded the T-3s last July 25 after an engine once again stopped in midair and neither the cadet nor the instructor could restart it. Luckily, the plane was over the academy runway and landed safely. “We want an effective flight-screening program, but a safe one,” says General Lloyd Newton, head of the service’s Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas, who ordered the grounding. “We’ve certainly bumped into some rough spots with this aircraft, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad aircraft.”

But two Air Force pilots who have flown T-3s as instructors disagree. They are the widows of Comeaux and Smith. Captain Laura Comeaux had been married to Glen 25 days when he was killed, just before the couple were to buy their first house. And Captain Elizabeth Smith gave birth to her first child, Samantha Clay, four months after her husband Clay’s death. “I’m afraid they will do the same thing again and not thoroughly test all the changes they’re making,” says Smith. She and Comeaux refuse to fly the T-3.

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