Power outage downed US F-16 jet in 2023 crash in South Korea

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A U.S. Air Force F-16C fighter crashed in a field in northwestern South Korea last year after the jet partially lost power and began showing unreliable flight data, causing the pilot to lose control of the aircraft as he navigated through thick clouds, the service concluded in an accident investigation report published Thursday.

The unnamed pilot, a member of the 80th Fighter Squadron at South Korea’s Kunsan Air Base, safely ejected before his F-16 hit the ground on the morning of May 6, 2023. The jet was destroyed at a cost of nearly $30 million.

The airman had taken off from Osan Air Base minutes earlier to fly a routine training sortie as part of Beverly Herd, the 8th Fighter Wing’s local readiness exercise, the report said. He was manning the second aircraft in a four-ship formation.

According to the investigation report, the power loss caused a “cascading failure or restart” of the pilot’s primary flight and navigation instruments. But the jet didn’t alert the pilot to use the standby display as it should have, instead showing him mismatched flight data across the two systems. Clouds prevented the airman from using visual cues to orient the jet at low altitude.

The disparate information “caused the [pilot] to become spatially disoriented and unable to maintain aircraft control in the weather and at a low altitude,” Col. Lynn Savage, who led the investigation, wrote in the report.

Shortly after landing on the ground, the pilot hopped on the messaging app Slack to tell his wingmen that he had ejected and was OK, according to the report. He was taken to Osan by ambulance and treated for minor injuries.

Because the F-16 was destroyed, investigators couldn’t determine what caused the electrical outage that ultimately downed the jet. Had the power stayed on or the skies remained clear, Savage said, the accident may not have happened.

The May 2023 crash marked the first in a string of F-16 accidents on the Korean Peninsula in the span of nine months, and the fourth Fighting Falcon mishap within a year.

In December 2023, another 8th Fighter Wing pilot safely ejected from an F-16 following an in-flight emergency during a training mission. In January, a third pilot from the same wing ejected as their F-16 crashed into the sea off the west coast of South Korea. And in April, an airman from the 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, also escaped their jet as it went down near White Sands National Park.

Each incident is still under investigation.

Around three F-16s are totaled on average each year, according to the latest available data compiled by the Air Force Safety Center in 2021.

The service is in the process of phasing out its F-16 fleet in favor of more advanced fighters. It received its first F-16C in 1984; more than 800 of the C- and D-model jets currently reside in the Air Force inventory.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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