Project: Get Out and Walk 



U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Display Team



14th September 2003

Lt. Christopher Strickland

Thunderbird crashes in huge fireball at airshow

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

A stunned crowd of perhaps as many as 50,000 people watched in silent horror Sunday as the last plane to launch for the USAF Thunderbirds airshow at Gunfighter Skies 2003 crashed and burned.

No one was hurt, but the incident overshadowed what organizers had been calling the best airshow at the base, ever.

The pilot, Capt. Chris Strickland, who ejected at literally the last second before his F-16C hit the ground, earned a huge ovation from the crowd as he stood briefly after parachuting to earth, just missing the hundreds of yards of smoke and flame that his aircraft and its 6800 pounds of jet fuel created after crashing in front of the control tower, just off the south runway about 1500 feet from the crowd. Then he collapsed, just as rescue crews were arriving.

Strickland was treated at the base hospital for minor injuries related to the stresses of a low-altitude ejection, and released later that night after calling his family to tell them he was OK.

Strickland had taken off as the sixth -- and last -- aircraft in the Thunderbird demonstration, the highlight event of the weekend airshow that saw an estimated 80-85,000 people attend during the two days of activities at Mountain Home AFB.

He climbed almost straight up into the sky, then rolled out and began a Split-S, a basic maneuver that allows a pilot to rapidly reverse direction in the vertical plane.

But something went wrong.

Instead of pulling out a couple hundred feet over the runway, the plane continued to lose altitude. "

Sincere thanks for permission to quote from the newspaper article and use the photographic images

Click on the ejection triangle  to see inside

Captain Strickland's F-16 cockpit prior to ejection
(please remember to close the media player file to return to this page)

Sincere thanks to Jay Honeck of
Aviation Videos
for providing me with this footage
from his collection
Click on the above link to visit his excellent collection of video material



The Thunderbird pilot, Capt. Chris Strickland, safely ejected at the last second before his F-16C Falcon crashed and burned about 500 yards from the airshow crowd.



The crowd stood in stunned silence as they watch the Thunderbird aircraft explode in smoke and flames.


PRESS RELEASE -- Secretary of the Air Force, Directorate of Public Affairs

Release No. 0121045 - Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. - Pilot error caused a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft to crash shortly after takeoff at an air show Sept. 14 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

According to the accident investigation board report released today, the pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the "Split S" maneuver. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S maneuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground -- just eight --tenths of a second prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

Also, the board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement for demonstration pilots to convert mean sea level and above ground level altitudes and performing a maneuver with a limited margin of error.

For more information, contact the ACC Public Affairs office at (757) 764-5007 or e-mail