Murphy's Law: How The F-16 Pilot Shot Up That SUV


June 29, 2008:Last April 9th, at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, two soldiers were driving a rented SUV about five kilometers from the part of the range used for live firing. It was at night, and an F-16 that thought it was firing at something in the live fire area, lit up the SUV instead [PHOTO]. The two soldiers survived, as did the SUV (sort of, it was hit six times). But until recently, nothing was heard about the F-16 pilot and how he managed to screw up.His name has not been revealed, but some information has surfaced.

The pilot, and the aircraft, were from the 388th Fighter Wing, which is stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.The 388th was one of the first units to receive the F-16, back in 1979, and currently has about 70 Hill AFB. The 388th helps run the Utah Test and Training Range, where the SUV incident took place.

The SUV was hit because the pilot, during a night training exercise, was momentarily distracted while closing in on a target about 2.5 kilometers from where the SUV was moving down a road. Only 70 20mm rounds were fired. Fortunately, the two people in the SUV were only injured (both from flying glass, the passenger got a dislocated shoulder as he rapidly exited the vehicle when it quickly turned off the road and stopped.)

The pilot, a veteran of over 800 flight hours in F-16s, was immediately grounded. The pilot was using night vision goggles, which are notoriously tricky to use ("like looking through a straw" is the most typical user description). The pilots wingman was using a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which is preferred, but costs a lot more (as in about a million dollars) than the night-vision goggles. So pilots train with both, but prefer the targeting pod. The wingman had illuminated the correct target with the pods laser designator. But flying low enough to strafe at night requires that the pilot pay close attention to altitude and the ground. One F-16 was lost in Iraq when it came in low at night to use the 20mm cannon, and hit the ground. The pilot died. As a result, the air force has encouraged pilots to train more for these kind of operations.

The 20mm fire is appreciated by ground troops because it can be very accurate, especially in an urban environment, with lots of innocent civilians close by. The terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan like to hide out among civilians, and often the only solution for that (if you can't send in some troops) is to put a few dozen 20mm shells into the room where the bad guys are.

"Training errors" are normally not something a pilot gets punished for. That's what training is all about. Making mistakes and learning to do it right. But the shot up SUV and two shaken soldiers brings back memories, especially among infantry and marines, of the many friendly fire incidents there have been over the last 70 years. Not so much anymore, thanks to smart bombs and GPS. But the memories fade slowly.

The investigation of the incident has not been completed. The grounded pilot was training for deployment, with his squadron, to Iraq for a four month tour.


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