An Oregon Air National Guard F-15 ended up in a drainage ditch at Kingsley Field, Oregon when its pilot did not use emergency braking systems, an Air Force investigation found. The base’s control tower lowered a last-ditch arresting cable that might have stopped the plane after a confusing radio exchange with the pilot. Photo from final accident report.

An experienced F-15 pilot made two split-second errors during an emergency landing — including saying a vital emergency word just once over the radio rather than repeating it three times — that sent the plane crashing into an Oregon drainage ditch in May 2023, an Air Force investigation found. In the minutes before the fighter slid off the end of the runway at Kingsley Field near Klamath Falls, Oregon, the pilot had done an admirable job of getting the plane safely down onto the base’s runway after a massive mid-flight hydraulics failure, an Accident Investigation Board report released this week found.

“While airborne, the [pilot] complied with all hydraulic emergency checklist items and developed a sound plan to safely recover the aircraft,” the investigation found. The pilot “was cognizant of the severity of the hydraulic leak and recognized the probability of total utility hydraulic system failure.”

But a miscue in braking and a misspoken final radio call led the board to blame the unnamed pilot for the mishap that destroyed the $35.5 million jet. The board’s final report found “by preponderance of the evidence, that the mishap was caused by the [pilot’s] decision not to engage the [F-15’s] Emergency Brake/Steer System in accordance with checklist guidance.”

A miscommunication with the Kingsley control tower also “substantially contributed” to the mishap, the board found, causing the plane to miss a last-ditch arresting cable that could have stopped the plane. The report also faulted maintenance personnel with failing to properly investigate signs that the hydraulic system might have had a leak prior to take-off.

Mid-flight emergency

The crash came at the end of a May 23, 2023 training mission that had been typical for fighters in the Oregon Air Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing. The pilot, who the report did not name but described as a senior F-15 instructor pilot with over 3,000 flight hours, flew as the leader of a flight of F-15s that had practiced dogfighting with another flight of Air Force F-35s then navigated through a low-level flight to simulate sneaking into and out of a combat zone.

During the low-level flight, the pilot saw the plane’s hydraulic system drop out, prompting the pilot to cancel the training mission, declare an inflight emergency and head home. But while landing at Kingsley, the pilot realized the plane’s brakes would not be enough to slow the plane down. About halfway down the runway, the pilot decided not to buy more time with a “go around” — firing the engines to take off again — but to instead continue landing using other emergency procedures.

But here, two split-second decisions doomed the plane, the board found.

First, the pilot decided not to use the plane’s emergency braking system, which locks the plane’s wheels. The pilot told investigators he feared the very real possibility that the violent braking would blow the tires on the jet, sending it careening off the runway at high speed. This fear, the board agreed, was not unfounded — the plane was traveling 90 knots on the runway when the brakes failed, while pilots are trained that tires can blow if locked up at speeds over 70.

But the board noted that using the emergency braking system was the prescribed procedure that pilots are trained and expected to follow in braking emergencies, even at higher landing speeds.

With no brakes, the pilot had one last chance to stop – snagging a last-ditch steel arresting cable strung across the runway for just such emergencies. But a momentary miscommunication with the control tower short circuited that chance.

Confusing radio call

In an effort to catch the cable, the pilot correctly lowered the plane’s tailhook but then made a radio call to controllers in the Kingsley tower of a single word: “cable.” He intended the radio call as an alert to the tower that he expected to catch the cable.

However, the board said, Air Force-approved radio call for such an alert is to repeat the word three times — ”cable, cable, cable.”

That lapse, the report found, tricked air traffic controllers in the tower into believing the pilot wanted the cable to be lowered out of the way.

“Pilots assigned to the 173 Fighter Wing commonly request to lower the departure-end arrestment cable after landing to minimize wear on the cable when taxing over it on the runway,” the report found. When an operator in the control tower heard the call for “cable,” they believed that the F-15 had landed normally and activated the switch in the control tower to lower the cable, out of reach of the F-15’s tail hook.

“Cable coming down,” a controller told the plane.

The pilot called back seven seconds later to correct the mistake.

“No, no, I need cable, cable up, cable up, cable up, cable up,” the pilot said.

The tower operator reacted quickly, raising the cable just four seconds later — but it was too late. The plane sailed off the end of the runway, coming to stop mostly submerged in a drainage ditch. The pilot was able to climb out and was treated for non-life threatening injuries.

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