The Deadly Trainer
Air Force cadets are dying in a new aircraft with a
dubious mission and many mechanical problems
By Mark Thompson
(TIME, Jan.12) -- Terri Weber's last conversation with her son Pace took place
just as his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot was taking off.
But she heard something besides excitement in her son's voice.
"Our planes are having a lot of mechanical problems," Pace told
his mom from his Air Force Academy dorm last June, four days
before he was due home on his summer break. His plane's engine
had unexpectedly conked out in mid-flight, forcing the
instructor to grab the controls and make an emergency landing.
"Sometimes it's scary," Pace said over the phone. "When we land,
I'm really sweating." Terri recalls listening to her firstborn
in her darkened living room and saying, "It sounds like there
are a lot of problems, so be really careful. I want you home in
one piece." Forty-eight hours later, an Air Force officer
knocked at the door of Weber's Miami town house, rousing her out
of bed. He told her that her son's airplane had crashed earlier
that day, killing him instantly.
The most dangerous plane to fly in the U.S. Air Force today
isn't the screaming F-15 Eagle, the Baghdad-bombing F-117
Nighthawk or the thunderous B-1 Lancer. In fact, it's not a jet
at all but the first plane fledgling pilots fly -- the powerful,
propeller-driven trainer flown by cadets at the U.S. Air Force
Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Six people -- three cadets and
their instructor pilots -- have died in three crashes of the T-3
Firefly trainer since the planes began flying there in 1995. The
T-3's crash record is all the more startling because from 1964
to 1994, cadets flew the trainer's predecessor, the T-41,
without a single fatality. But in 1995, the Air Force Academy
said goodbye to the plodding T-41 and its sturdy safety record,
replacing it with the muscular T-3.
That decision is starting to look like a mistake. A TIME
investigation, based on dozens of interviews as well as a review
of Air Force documents obtained under the Freedom of Information
Act, suggests that the T-3 is a plane too perilous for veteran
pilots, much less beginners, to fly. Its single engine has
failed 66 times, nearly half of them during flight or at
perilous moments like takeoffs and landings. Its brakes are so
poor that the Air Force has banned student solo flights out of
concern that a novice can't bring the plane to a full stop
without rolling off the end of the runway. The Air Force has
grounded the 110-plane fleet for 10 different modifications in
an effort to solve the mechanical problems. And in December,
after TIME asked a series of questions about the T-3, acting Air
Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters ordered a comprehensive review
of the aircraft's purchase, testing and operation.
The T-3's introduction to Air Force training was a particular
passion of General Merrill McPeak, the service's chief of staff
in the early 1990s. McPeak, a fighter pilot who had flown with
the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision-flying team, is now
retired but still flies his own homemade, acrobatic RV-4
aircraft. "The T-41 is your grandmother's airplane," says McPeak
of the T-3's predecessor. "Our mission is to train
warrior-pilots, not dentists to fly their families to Acapulco."
The old T-41, he argued, taught students to fly only straight
and level, and didn't teach cadets the building blocks of
military flying, including a dizzying array of loops, rolls and
spins. With the T-3, the Air Force could offer what it called an
"enhanced flight-screening program," which could pinpoint "those
cadets who have the basic aptitude to become Air Force pilots."
McPeak encouraged his service to buy a trainer that could spin,
the wing tips tracing a circle after the plane has lost, at
least temporarily, its ability to remain aloft. It is a maneuver
so dangerous that Air Force fighter pilots are under orders to
eject if one occurs. But McPeak believes that a pilot who
doesn't fear spins--and knows how to get out of them--is a
better pilot, even if they're done only during training.
The Air Force brass, eager to please the boss, bought the
1,750-lb. English-manufactured Slingsby T-3 and made it
mandatory for all cadets to fly the craft if they want to earn
their wings. It is a tiny plane, half the length and one-tenth
the weight of the F-16, the Air Force's smallest fighter. But
its standard, 160-hp engine was not powerful enough to do spins
and loops in the thin Rocky Mountain air over the mile-high
academy. So a 7.7-liter, 260-hp engine was crammed into the
25-ft.-long plastic fuselage. With its enhanced power, the
two-seat T-3 can fly 200 m.p.h. and make gut-wrenching turns in
which the crew endures up to six times the force of gravity.
But the new T-3 spooked some instructors shortly after cadets
started flying it in January 1995. At a meeting a week before
the first crash, several grumbled that the T-3 lacked
parachutes. "It's crazy that we don't fly with parachutes," said
one of the instructors present, Captain Dan Fischer. "It's an
FAA regulation if you do acrobatics." Air Force superiors said
the service didn't have to obey Federal Aviation Administration
rules even though the T-3, unlike most Air Force planes, is
registered with the FAA. Back at his apartment, Fischer was
blunter. "Someone's going to die before they get rid of these
spins," he told his roommate, also a T-3 pilot. "And it's not
going to be me."
His foresight didn't save him. On Feb. 22, 1995, Fischer, 29,
and Cadet Mark Dostal, 20, were killed when their T-3
corkscrewed into the ground about 50 miles east of the academy.
Dostal, of Moraga, Calif., was a junior at the academy, where he
had racked up scholastic and athletic honors. "Mark wanted to
fly from the time he was a little boy," says his mother Shirley.
"He thought his best chance to fly was to go to the academy." He
had spent 11 hours learning to fly the T-3.
The Air Force investigation concluded that Dostal put the plane
into a spin and that Fischer fumbled the recovery because the
Air Force had not adequately trained him. The crash report said
the engine was running while the plane plunged a mile in 30
sec., in 17 ever tightening spirals, into a snow-covered
pasture. Yet witnesses told investigators the plane was silent
as it came down. The Air Force grounded the T-3s for a week. And
when they resumed flying, spins were banned.
But at least one lesson was still to be learned. When an Air
Force officer briefed Shirley Dostal on the crash, she asked why
her son hadn't had a parachute. The officer explained that
parachutes would be of little use in the T-3 because the plane
lacked ejection seats. Five months after Mark died, another T-3
went into a spin, and the crew couldn't recover. It was a lot
like Dostal's crash, except for one thing. It was a British T-3
flying over the English Midlands, and both pilots were wearing
parachutes. They bailed out and were back at work the next day.
Only then did the Air Force order parachutes for its T-3s. "It
was as if the Air Force held a gun to my son's head and pulled
the trigger," Dostal says. "This should have been a safe,
learning environment instead of something thought up by some
On Sept. 30, 1996, a second T-3 crashed 30 miles east of the
academy, killing Cadet Dennis Rando, 21, and his instructor,
Captain Clay Smith, 28. The Air Force concluded that Rando, a
senior, and Smith had been practicing a forced landing and
crashed when the engine failed during a key part of the
maneuver. The first expert to study the wrecked engine said it
was operating at impact. But when they looked into it, Air Force
investigators disputed that finding, especially when they
discovered that the initial expert didn't work for the Air
Force, as they had thought, but was employed by Textron
Lycoming, the engine maker. They uncovered the fact that T-3
engines had failed 53 times at the academy and at another base
before the second crash. Rando's father Paul was stunned by this
information when it was relayed to him at his Massachusetts home
as part of the Air Force's standard family briefing. "How can
you tell me there's not something wrong with this goddam plane
when the engine's failed more than 50 times?" he remembers
asking. "Something's sure wrong with something."
By late 1996, maintenance crews were making nonstop
modifications to the plane's engine, fuel system and brakes.
"We've got this airplane practically rebuilt, but [the problems]
just don't seem to stop," Senior Master Sergeant Michael Rutland
complained to Air Force investigators looking into the second
crash. "We wonder what else is wrong with it that we don't know
about." More than half the instructor pilots, busy trying to
teach others to fly, had "generalized anger" about the T-3, an
Air Force psychologist reported. And the cadets were uneasy too.
"With two accidents in two years, I'm not entirely sure it's
completely safe," Cadet Daniel Ronneberg told investigators. In
the wake of the accident, the Air Force barred cadets from
practicing forced landings. But two days after the second crash,
the T-3s were ordered back into the air.
It was in this environment that 20-year-old Pace Weber, a senior
cadet, called his mother last summer and confessed his
apprehension about the plane. "Since Pace was a little boy, he
focused on airplanes and astronauts," Terri Weber says. "Getting
into the Air Force Academy was something he wanted since junior
high." Pace, who had spent 17 hours in the T-3, was flying last
June 25 with his instructor, Captain Glen Comeaux, 31, when
their T-3 sputtered during a turn at about 500 ft. It quickly
entered a spin and exploded in a fireball just after hitting the
ground two miles east of the academy airfield. Their plane had
been written up by pilots 10 times for engine problems,
including one during the flight immediately before the fatal
trip. The Air Force said the engine was running at impact,
although it was producing so little power that the propeller was
barely turning. "If Pace was flying in the Gulf War and died, I
could understand that," his mother says. "But they were just
supposed to be seeing if he could be a good pilot."
Defenders of the plane argue that's exactly what T-3 training is
meant to accomplish. "We don't want to kill people at the Air
Force Academy, obviously," McPeak says. "But we drove [Commerce
Secretary] Ron Brown and a planeload of VIPs into the hills of
Yugoslavia because of pilot error." "We don't want to kill a
planeload of people because we haven't properly identified the
people who can do this job." Other Air Force officers point out
that the plane has flown without an accident at an Air Force
base at Hondo, Texas, where the instructors, who are civilians
working under contract with the Air Force, have spent years
flying small, piston-powered aircraft like the T-3. "If the
engine quits, we know how to land the airplane and walk away
from it," a civilian pilot at Hondo says. "The Air Force guys
just know how to bail out when that happens." McPeak, a former
F-15 pilot, suggests the fact that all three dead T-3 instructor
pilots flew bulky cargo planes before coming to the academy
might have contributed to the accidents. "Maybe if you'd had
three fighter pilots in there instead of three C-141 pilots, you
wouldn't have had the same result."
Many T-3 pilots at both Hondo and Colorado Springs believe the
plane flies much better in the lower, and heavier, Texas air
than in the thin air above Colorado's mile-high plains. Some Air
Force safety experts have recommended that the entire T-3
operation be based at Hondo. "The flight school shouldn't be in
the mountains," says one such expert. "But Annapolis has boats
and West Point has cannon, and so saying you're not going to
have planes at the Air Force Academy doesn't sound right."
Even so, after the third crash, the pilots began to wonder just
what they were flying. That accident produced the most
devastating account of the T-3's mechanical weaknesses. The
official investigation disclosed that after the plane was
delivered to the Air Force, manufacturer Slingsby Aviation Ltd.
recommended that 119 fixes be made to improve safety. That probe
and other reports showed that the Air Force had made numerous
engine changes, revised its starting procedure and modified the
airplane's fuel lines and cowling, but that the motor had
continued to shut down for unknown reasons. The brakes suffer
from "sponginess, excessive travel and total loss of brake
pressure," the experts said. A cockpit safety alarm designed to
warn of an approaching stall keeps failing because it was built
to operate on 24 volts while the T-3's electrical system
produces 27. Even the plane's rather simple but critical cockpit
gauges suffer from "extremely low" reliability, investigators
wrote. "I don't know what testing went into all those different
changes," Captain Pat Derock, a T-3 instructor pilot, told Air
Force investigators. "Some of the modifications were probably
not completely or thoroughly tested."
The Air Force insists they were. A week after the third fatal
crash in 28 months, the planes were ordered back into the air.
The Air Force finally grounded the T-3s last July 25 after an
engine once again stopped in midair and neither the cadet nor
the instructor could restart it. Luckily, the plane was over the
academy runway and landed safely. "We want an effective
flight-screening program, but a safe one," says General Lloyd
Newton, head of the service's Air Education and Training Command
in San Antonio, Texas, who ordered the grounding. "We've
certainly bumped into some rough spots with this aircraft, but
that doesn't mean it's a bad aircraft."
But two Air Force pilots who have flown T-3s as instructors
disagree. They are the widows of Comeaux and Smith. Captain
Laura Comeaux had been married to Glen 25 days when he was
killed, just before the couple were to buy their first house.
And Captain Elizabeth Smith gave birth to her first child,
Samantha Clay, four months after her husband Clay's death. "I'm
afraid they will do the same thing again and not thoroughly test
all the changes they're making," says Smith. She and Comeaux
refuse to fly the T-3.