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It was the ejection from an F-16 that killed Capt. Lucas Gruenther.
Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base was flying a night training mission Jan. 28 off the Coast of Italy when he became spatially disoriented. In 15 seconds, the F-16 plummeted 10,000 feet, leaving him no option but to eject.
But that final act meant to save his life ended up killing him, according to an accident investigation.
Gruenther flew as part of a formation of three F-16CMs and one F-16DM during training over the Adriatic Sea. The pilots, flying with the use of night vision goggles after a 7:03 p.m. takeoff, were forced to abandon their first training mission because of weather, and instead focused on two simulated bomb drops as a backup mission. The four jets broke into teams of two, and the first part of the mission was executed without any problems.
At 7:48 p.m. local time, about 45 minutes after takeoff, Gruenther flew a simulated drop followed by a “last ditch” defensive maneuver followed by recover maneuvers, which were intended to simulate the threat of a surface-to-air missile. Gruenther pulled his F-16 to the right and nose down. He rolled the plane to stabilize at about 150 degrees, banking to the left with his nose down 40 degrees. He continued to descend and roll, accelerating through 400 knots and 17,700 feet above sea level until the simulated missile overshot him. This is where he began to experience spatial disorientation, according to the report, which was released Oct. 30.
“CLAW 1 missile overshot,” he radioed to his team in the air.
Three seconds later: “CLAW knock it off, I’m spatial D.”
The phrase “knock it off” tells the wingman or aircrew to stop their engagements.
The maneuvers resulted in a 45-degree nose low, 90-degree left wing down attitude, according to the report.
The maneuvers resulted in visual and aural warnings, with caution lights blinking in the aircraft, along with the high rate of descent and airspeed.
“Look at the round dials, disregard the HUD,” Gruenther’s wingman said back, telling him to ignore the warnings on the jet’s heads-up display and focus on the instruments in his cockpit to help him get his bearings.
At 7:49:17, he rolled away from the horizon to fully inverted, his canopy pointing directly toward the ground, and pulled his nose to 70 degrees nose low toward the water, now flying 535 knots through 12,000 feet. One second later, he rolled right, trying to even up the jet.
“1 status your round dials,” the wingman asked, but Gruenther did not respond.
He continued to try to gain control but finally believed he could not recover and decided to eject.
At about 7:49:24 p.m., Gruenther ejected. His jet was at 7,066 feet, traveling 569 knots at a dive angle of 16 degrees and an 18 degree left bank.
He immediately lost his helmet. The ejection seat launched with a left yaw from the cockpit, and there was slack in Gruenther’s harness. All of that, combined with a snap back with the force of 40Gs following drogue chute deployment, quickly resulted in the pilot’s death from severe head and neck trauma, according to the report.
The crash destroyed the F-16 at a loss of about $28.4 million.
“I find, by clear and convincing evidence, that the cause of the mishap was the pilot’s failure to effectively recover from spatial disorientation, due to a combination of weather conditions, the [mishap pilot’s] use of [night vision goggles], the [aircraft’s] attitude and high rate of speed, and the [mishap pio0t’s] breakdown in visual scan,” accident investigation board president Brig. Gen. Derek Rydholm wrote in his opinion of the report. “This led the [mishap pilot] to misjudge the imminent need to eject.”
Quickly after losing contact with Gruenther, his wingman radioed the base to declare an emergency and begin search and rescue. The Italian Air Force and Coast Guard began the search with five boats and a helicopter. The search lasted about three days and included the use of a Navy P-3 Orion, an Air Force C-130J, American F-16s and the Italian Coast Guard, which recovered his remains on Jan. 31.
Problems with the gear
The report details problems with the F-16’s ejection system and Gruenther’s gear but stops short of saying they contributed to his death. The jet’s speed and positioning was within the performance envelope of the ejection equipment. However, he launched wearing the night vision goggles and a helmet-mounted cueing system, which could place a potentially fatal load on the pilot’s neck, the report states.
Upon ejection, the seat’s retraction reels retracted to unequal lengths: the left side strap protruded 3 inches from the back of the seat to the tip of the fitting, while the right strap protruded 4.5 inches. This meant Gruenther was off center, to the left of the seat when the ejection rockets fired.
He experienced an approximately 15G downforce when his helmet came off in the initial wind blast. The seat left the jet on a left yaw, with another 10Gs of left lateral force.
The drogue chute, designed to stabilize the seat for fast ejections, caused a 40G snap back to the right.
Gruenther’s brother, Capt. Alexander Gruenther, said the Air Force explained to him that the direction of the ejection and position of the strap were because the F-16 was in the middle of a more than 8G turn when he ejected.
As part of the report, investigators reviewed inspection and maintenance records of the ejection equipment that “revealed several discrepancies,” but “there is no evidence to suggest these discrepancies were a factor in the mishap or [mishap pilot’s] death.”
The Flight Equipment Records Management System showed that a G-suit fit check had not occurred within 120 days as required. A time compliance technical order for an inspection of the G-suit’s water check valve was marked on the suit itself, but not in the suit’s records. The personnel locator beacon was tested as “battery well,” but not marked as such in records.
Pictured him a general
Gruenther’s wife, Cassy, said reading the crash report was upsetting, especially the fact that he had expressed concerns about the weather before and during the flight.
“I feel like some bad decisions were made for them to be flying in that weather,” she said. “He was put in a really hard position. He had to make a life or death decision in seconds. He did everything absolutely the way he was supposed to. I know that in my heart. He tried his hardest to come home to us.”
Gruenther came from a military pedigree. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2003, taught pilots in Texas and had deployed to Afghanistan.
His grandfather is Army Gen. Alfred Gruenther, who served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1953 to 1956. The pilot planned to stay in the Air Force. His brother Alexander said Lucas was the reason he got in the Air Force. A computer engineer currently based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Alexander said his brother was a great mentor who gave him career advice and encouraged him to be a better officer.
“Luc’s just a special person,” Alexander said. “He touched everyone he met.”
At the time of the crash, Lucas and Cassy were expecting their first child. A girl named Serene who was born 10 days after he died.
Since the crash, the Gruenther family has set up a memorial fund at lucasgruenther.com. It helps people who show the same personality as Lucas — a drive to learn and accomplish things that they are passionate about.
Fellow airmen have repeatedly contacted Cassy and her family, telling them stories about Lucas, and wanting to honor him in their own way, she said.
“Every base we were at, in every Air Force interaction he had, and even outside the Air Force. He had such a positive impact on people,” Cassy said. “You can’t find one person who has a bad memory of Luc.”