The night before an instructor and student pilot died while attempting a T-38 formation landing, the instructor and two superiors at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., had a conversation about the maneuver.
At the time, student pilots were required to complete two formation landings—when more than one aircraft land at the same time—as part of the T-38 Air Education and Training Command syllabus. But, the Combat Air Force, which the pilots enter after graduation, has almost completely ended the practice of formation landings, and as a result, instructor pilots are no longer as proficient in the maneuver.
“It’s been a while since I have been in the CAF, but from what I heard, the CAF is not doing them that much anymore. So I don’t really understand why we are still doing them. So that’s a big question mark in my mind,” the director of operations at the 5th Flying Training Squadron at Vance told investigators in an extended Accident Investigation Board report into the November 2019 crash obtained by Air Force Magazine.
“The night before … [we] were talking about how they need to eliminate formation landings from the syllabus and we were just, I mean, we literally just had that conversation before I went home that night. So it’s pretty shocking,” the ops director said.
After the crash, the Air Force reviewed its requirements and suspended the practice of student pilots conducting formation landings.
“On March 5, 2020, the United States Air Force directed the suspension of formation landing training in undergraduate pilot training,” AETC said in a statement. “We are constantly evaluating our training programs to ensure we provide the best possible pilots for our Air Force. Following an Air Force-wide review, we adjusted our syllabi to reflect the requirements of our fifth-generation Air Force advances in avionics.”
Wilkie’s parents Carlene and Don, in a statement, said they were notified on May 11 of the March change. The decision to halt the formation landings “substantiates the failure of Air Force leadership to discontinue an archaic and dangerous training requirement, in a tired 58-year-old plane, before it took the life of our son Travis and his instructor pilot.”
“We are relieved that student pilots will no longer be required, nor instructor pilots permitted, to perform an inherently dangerous maneuver with no benefit to their development as combat fighter pilots,” the family said.
A “Kind of Dumb” Part of Training
On Nov. 21, 2019, student pilot 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie and instructor pilot Col. John “Matt” Kincade took off alongside another T-38 for a local student formation training mission. Wilkie had progressed through his training, earning high marks for eagerness and hard work, though instructors and leadership noted some “substandard” execution in training. Kincade had an “impeccable reputation” and was one of the most experienced T-38 instructors at the base.
The night before the flight, Kincade, along with the director of operations and the flight commander—both unnamed in the AIB report—had a discussion on the need for the formation landings. Wilkie had already flown two, meeting the course requirement. Two years before the crash, USAF had reduced the requirement from five formation landings, with at least three at a “fair level,” to two at an “unsatisfactory” level, prompting many instructor pilots to question why they were even necessary.
The reduced requirement during pilot training, combined with the fact that the Combat Air Force doesn’t really use them, meant instructors were “doing them a whole lot less, and we are a lot less proficient,” the commander told investigators, noting also that a “good share” of instructor pilots in the squadron have said they are more hesitant to do a formation approach, the commander of the 5th Flying Training Squadron told investigators.
The formation landings, the director of operations recalled saying, is “just one of the things that we thought was kind of dumb.”
Nonetheless, the Nov. 21 flight went ahead with the plan for a formation landing. When they touched down, the T-38 on the left of the formation bounced into the air and rolled to the right, touching down again in a right bank. It began to skid across the runway toward the other Talon, and lifted off the runway again, striking the other jet with its landing gear. The force of the impact caused the aircraft to roll and crash into the ground inverted. Both pilots were killed instantly.
The investigation found that during the landing, Kincade, the instructor, did not take control of the aircraft as a “precarious situation” developed. Subsequently, Wilkie made incorrect flight control inputs, prematurely initiating an aerodynamic braking maneuver immediately after touching down. This caused the aircraft to jump back into the air, and Wilkie applied and held right rudder to avoid the edge of the runway. The combination caused the aircraft to roll and yaw, putting it on a “collision course” with the other plane.
Wilkie’s family pushed back on the investigation, saying in a statement the report was “grossly and unjustly incomplete” with the findings not mentioning the reduced requirement for formation landings.
“By omitting this obvious contributing cause, the Air Force is not compelled with sufficient urgency and transparency to reassess the cost-benefit of student fighter pilots, and for that matter instructor pilots, engaging in an inherently dangerous practice with no continuing practical benefit to combat pilot proficiency or survivability,” the family said in a statement. “Because formation landings are no longer used by front-line combat aircraft, they should have been removed from the T-38 training syllabus years ago.”
Shortly after the crash, Wilkie’s family reached out to Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) with concerns both about the formation landings and the aging T-38 used for pilot training. The Air Force plans to replace the T-38 with the new T-7A Red Hawk.
On Jan. 10, 2020, Peters wrote to AETC boss Lt. Gen. Brad Webb conveying the family’s concerns, and calling on the Air Force to ground all T-38C flights immediately. Peters pushed for the expedited replacement of the aircraft and for AETC to stop formation landing training.
“Based on the facts provided to me by the family, I agreed it was the right thing to do and I also felt strongly that the Air Force training pilots should cease flying in the T-38s,” Peters said in a statement to Air Force Magazine. “… We all acknowledge the inherent dangers involved in being an Air Force pilot. But if these planes are too old to be safe, then let’s get safer ones. If the Air Force needs money to replace them, they should ask Congress and I will be the first to push to get them funded.
“What the Air Force can do immediately is cease these formation landings. I asked the Air Force in January to do that; I hope they have.”
Webb, in a February response to Peters and the Wilkie family, wrote that “formation flying has been an integral part of military training and operations.”
“This has been the case throughout modern aviation and is built into the tactics, techniques, and procedures of current USAF platforms enabling increased survivability in combat and providing options for safe recoveries of aircraft during certain avionics malfunctions,” Webb wrote. “We continually assess operational and training requirements and we make adjustments to the syllabi as the requirements dictate. We frequently have syllabi re-writes and we consider all factors when doing so.”
However, Air Combat Command, in a statement, acknowledged that formation landings are rare and “typically only used during emergency situations.” However, formation approaches, without landing, are common in training once pilots enter the Combat Air Force.
The Wilkie family contends the service has not changed “rapidly enough given the adoption of new technologies.”
“Formation landing in a T-38 is an archaic holdover from days when jets and control towers didn’t have the capabilities that permeate aviation today,” the family said in a statement. “Air Force leadership must bring its jet pilot training mindset up to date and give sufficient weight to the obvious threat to pilot survival.”
While AETC has adjusted the syllabus, the command maintains the T-38 fleet is healthy and ready for current pilot training. The T-38C, the model involved in the mishap, has had 14 Class A mishaps, resulting in eight fatalities since 1998. However, the aircraft have received advanced avionics, service life extension program with engine updates, new ejection seats, and structural components, the command said. Each plane is maintained and inspected before going on the flying schedule with full nose-to-tail “phase” inspections every 450 flight hours.
“The Northrop T-38 has been an integral part of USAF undergraduate pilot training since 1962,” AETC said. “The aircraft’s safety and reliability has been improved continually since the 1980s. The T-38C is proven to be as safe as possible in training America’s young women and men.”