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Retired colonel: Thunderbird pilot had mere seconds to bail before crash near Colorado Springs

June 2, 2016 Updated: June 3, 2016 at 2:38 pm
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Two or three seconds.

Odds are, that's how long it took an F-16 Thunderbird pilot on Thursday to recognize his jet was broken and nose up, direct it away from houses and eject from the plane, an expert said.

The Thunderbird's crash happened at a critical moment - on approach for landing, when the pilot had little choice but to bail, said Dan Hampton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has logged more than 4,000 flight hours in F-16 cockpits.

"Instantly, he has to react and react correctly - and he did," Hampton said.

Thunderbirds-Jet Crash
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows Maj. Alex Turner, of Chelmsford, Mass. The Air Force has identified Turner as the pilot of a jet that crashed following a Thunderbirds flyover in Colorado. Turner bailed out of his F-16 jet just after doing a flyover at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where President Barack Obama was speaking during a graduation ceremony. Obama met with the pilot after the crash and thanked him for his service, and expressed his relief that he wasn't seriously injured. (U.S. Air Force via AP) 

Thunderbird No. 6, piloted by Maj. Alex Turner, crashed a few miles south of the Colorado Springs Airport while making its final approach to land. A witness heard two loud booms, then saw it glide into a field. Turner ejected from the cockpit and escaped serious injury.

Air Force Academy sources said the F-16's engine appeared to fail, though the official cause remains under investigation.

If so, it happened at a terrible time, Hampton said.

Just a few miles from the runway, F-16s typically fly low to the ground and slow - roughly 160 or 170 mph, which is a fraction of their performance speed, Hampton said. It was likely too slow to glide to the runway, he said.

There's only one thing pilots can do at that moment: Point the jet's nose up and get out.

"These are things that everybody practices," said Hampton, who lives six months a year in Colorado Springs. He wrote a book about flying the F-16, titled "Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat."

Luckily, Hampton said, Thunderbirds are known as "clean airplanes." They do not carry any ammunition or bombs, and they don't have the same instruments that warplanes do, making them lighter and more nimble.

Engine problems in the early days of the F-16 earned the jet the derisive nickname "lawn dart."

But F-16s have since become reliable jets, Hampton said.

"Engine failure is probably one of the only things that will bring an F-16 down in peacetime," Hampton said.

F-16s rely on a single engine to stay airborne - a powerful machine akin to a thousand tiny windmills inside a long tube, Hampton said. If one turbine blade breaks, the roughly $15 million fighter jet turns into a glider.

Hampton knows those risks well.

It happened to him 1992, moments after he lifted off while screaming down a runway at 500 mph. An oil seal came loose and his engine fell apart, leaving him flying fast but powerless.

Hampton said he nosed up, turned the jet upside down like a roller coaster and landed clean on the same exceptionally-long runway from whence he took off.

It happened again roughly 10 years ago, when a turbine blade broke inside his engine. Hampton was 15,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and 10 miles from the coast, where he could land at an airport.

Luckily, he was flying fast, so he just glided safely to the runway.

The pilot inside the Thunderbird that crashed Thursday didn't have that same luxury.

"My hat's off to this guy, because he did exactly what he's supposed to do," Hampton said. "It happens and nobody got hurt. And that's the best possible end to that story, other than him being able to land it on the runway."

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