Air Force Faults Pilots In Collision of F-15s

Probe Finds No Structural Flaws in Jets

By Josh White

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 26, 2008; A02

The Air Force has concluded that an F-15 fighter jet crash that killed a young officer over the Gulf of Mexico in February was the result of pilot error and was not related to the structural flaws that have been found in other aging F-15s, according to an investigation report released yesterday.

The midair collision between two F-15C Eagle jets off the coast of Florida on Feb. 20 destroyed both airplanes and scattered their parts across the ocean, killing 1st Lt. Ali Jivanjee instantly and leaving another pilot with minor injuries. Investigators found that the aircraft were both functioning properly and had no structural or mechanical failures before the crash.

Instead, Air Force officials deemed that the two pilots -- both listed as "inexperienced" because they had fewer than 500 flight hours -- failed to notice how close they were to each other while performing training exercises, lost sight of each other, and hit while performing a maneuver.

The Air Force had grounded its entire fleet of aging F-15 fighter jets from early November to Jan. 10 because of concerns about the structural integrity of support beams surrounding the cockpits. An F-15 snapped apart while flying over Missouri last year as the result of weakness in the beams, causing Air Force officials to worry that the planes had become dangerous. Some F-15 models are more than 30 years old.

That grounding caused fighter pilots such as Jivanjee to lose important flying time, and the report indicates that he did not fly for 54 days until such flights were approved in January. Investigators noted that when the pilots began flying again they might not have been as prepared as they were before the grounding.

"While the MPs [mishap pilots] had regained their currency and qualifications it is questionable whether they had regained the proficiency held before the AF stand down of all F-15Cs," Air Force Brig. Gen. Joseph Reynes Jr. wrote in his accident investigation board report. "However, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that pilot proficiency directly contributed to the cause of this mishap."

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Reynes said the two airplanes turned into each other while performing combat exercises at about 1:30 p.m., with the pilots having only a couple of seconds to try to correct their mistake before colliding. He said Jivanjee died instantly, while Capt. Tucker Hamilton was able to eject and was rescued from the Gulf waters about two hours later.

Reynes said it is a challenge to ensure that pilots regain critical skills after lengthy groundings, but he said both pilots had excellent flight records and noted that Jivanjee was an "outstanding young officer."

"They were both competent and proficient to perform this activity," Reynes said. "Were they as proficient as they could have been? . . . I can't answer that question."

After grounding all older F-15s last year, Air Force officials found nine that were unfit for flight because of cracks in the support beams known as longerons. Hundreds of other F-15s were returned to regular use. The Air Force has been promoting the retirement of such older planes amid a desire to buy more advanced and modern fighter jets, such as the F-22.