LTC William Ritter Nusz, Jr.

Birth:  Jul. 13, 1955
Illinois, USA

Death:  Oct. 22, 1997
California, USA
Family links: 
  William R Nusz (1919 - 2008)
Arlington National Cemetery
Virginia, USA
Plot: Sec: 65, Site: 1210


Pilot May Face Action in Fatal Edwards Crash

Military: During abrupt turn, wing of F-16 fighter struck cockpit canopy of T-38 trainer, sending two fliers in the T-38 to their deaths.


EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE Air Force officials are considering whether to take action against a pilot blamed for an Oct. 22 collision in which the wing of his plane punched the two-man crew of another jet out of their cockpit seats thousands of feet above the desert, without parachutes, killing them.

An investigative report released last week on the Internet graphically describes the deaths of a U.S. Air Force flight instructor, Lt. Col. William R. Nusz of Rosamond, and a visiting British Royal Air Force flier, Flight Lt. Leigh Alexander Fox.

Their T-38 training jet was flying at 585 mph in formation with a B-1 bomber and an F-16 fighter flown by Lt. Col. Richard Stevens.

In a tight bank, the F-16's left wing sliced through the T-38's plexiglass cockpit canopy from above at precisely the point where the crew was sitting, knocking Nusz and Fox out of their ejection seats and out of the plane at 2,700 feet.

As in most fighter jets, their parachutes were attached to the ejection seats, which remained in the plane.

The investigation concluded the fliers died of multiple blunt-force injuries, including injuries to the head, said Capt. Stephanie Holcombe, spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Investigators could not determine whether the men's fatal injuries were caused by the impact of the other plane's wing or by the force of hitting the ground after a long fall, she said.

Stevens misjudged how close he was to the training jet when he swerved to avoid flying into birds, the report said. Stevens felt a thump, saw that a 3-foot chunk of his wing was missing and turned back to look for parachutes, it said.

According to the investigative report, neither of the airmen had a chance. "The force of the collision extracted both crew members from their respective ejection seats and gave them no opportunity to initiate an ejection," the report said.

Except for the quirky circumstance of being hurled from their seats, the men otherwise might have safely parachuted to earth, according to the report.

Their aircraft, without the crew, "continued flying with a mild wing rock, slowly losing altitude until it impacted" the ground more than 3 miles from where the bodies fell.

Birds are a significant hazard for jet pilots, said 1st Lt. Chris Hemrick, acting director of public affairs at Edwards. There have been 21 reports of aircraft striking birds at Edwards in the last two years, he said.

"The major threat is the abundant horned lark, a small bird that tends to flock at or near the surface," Hemrick said. Birds sucked into a jet engine can shut it down. They also can break through a jet's wind screen, "which is very dangerous," he added.

Accident investigators said that they do not know what type of birds Stevens was avoiding, but that the pilot "aggressively maneuvered."

The pilot was blamed as the primary cause of the accident in the official Air Force report.

Maj. Gen. Richard I. Engle, Stevens' commander at Edwards, is studying the report to determine what action, if any, should be taken against the pilot.

Other Air Force officials also will decide if there is a need for further investigation or changes in procedures as a result of the fatal accident.

"Right now, any actions for preventing further mishaps are still being looked at," said the Air Force spokeswoman.

At the time of the accident, both fighters were flying a photographic support mission, taking photographs as the B-1 dropped 25-pound dummy bombs designed to mimic the flight characteristics of 2,000-pound conventional bombs.

The planes were preparing to return to the base when the crash occurred.

Investigators found that a contributing factor was that the F-16 pilot pulled out of the formation by dropping below the bomber, precluding the B-1 crew from keeping him in sight. The breakup of the formation had not been discussed at a meeting before the mission.

It also found that Stevens' "initial perception [of the T-38's position] was flawed" and that his busy schedule as deputy commander of the 412th Operations Group prevented him from flying frequently.

Stevens had flown only once in September and once in October before the accident.

The last previous fatal accident at Edwards was in 1992, when a Navy Mitsubishi MU-2 cargo plane crashed on approach to the main runway, killing the pilot and a passenger and injuring seven more occupants.

The last midair collision was in 1987, when a T-38 carrying two Air Force officers collided with a Cessna in which two civilians were flying. All four died.