In October 2011, an F-15 fighter jet took off from Tel Nof Airbase in central Israel. Seated inside the plane were an experienced pilot and navigator. Shortly after take off, the pilot spotted a flock of pelicans straight ahead. He turned left to avoid them, only to run straight into a bigger flock. Birds struck the plane’s canopy and left engine, causing it to catch fire.
The pilot then saw an indication that both of his engines were on fire. He was in big trouble. But he discovered that despite what his instruments were telling him, he still had enough thrust in the right engine to attempt to return to the airport. His only other option was to eject with his navigator.
By the time the pilot was able to circle back to the airport, he was high above the beginning of the runway. As he descended rapidly, the pilot raised the nose of the plane sharply in order to increase the drag and slow down enough to catch the arresting wire on the runway with his tailhook. He landed perfectly and then jumped out with his navigator before the plane went up in flames.
Watch the drama unfold and listen to the voices on the radio:
Click “show annotations” if you can’t see the English subtitles during the radio conversation.
What went wrong? Could this accident have been avoided?
That’s where the IAF Accident Investigations Branch comes in. Major Albert Schmidt is a senior accident investigator in the IAF. Written on the top of his whiteboard is his mantra: “Good judgement comes from experience. A lot of experience comes from bad judgement.”
Immediately after a crash or accident, the IAF forms an investigative committee. A diverse team of experts is assembled — pilots, doctors, psychologists, engineers and more. As the senior investigator, it is his role to provide professional leadership to the group. All members of the team will use their skills in order to conduct the most thorough investigation possible. The most important thing, Schmidt said, is that they are impartial and independent.
“This isn’t just a slogan for the media. The team doesn’t answer to anybody. We get what we need. If we want more technicians, we get them. If we want a huge hanger to work in, we get it. Anything to solve the problem.”
He emphasized that the IAF’s approach is not to go looking for guilty people. “Our mission is to prevent future accidents and save lives, not to assign blame,” he said. “Everyone involved is protected from criminal charges. This is in the public interest.”
Around the corner from Schmidt’s office is a storage room full of files from IAF accident investigations since 1956. They can be useful background information for any investigator. Also on display is the first official order for an IAF investigation — signed by David Ben-Gurion in 1949.
In the same room, Schmidt has emergency kits ready to go with everything he needs upon arriving to a crash site, including communications equipment, flashlights and dozens of batteries. As soon as he gets the call that there has been an accident, he grabs his gear and runs.
When his team arrive at a crash site, the downed plane or helicopter is not always approachable. There could be fires, burning materials, dangerous fumes and unexploded bombs. Sometimes the site is in hostile territory and needs IDF forces to secure it. “We don’t approach the plane until it is safe to do so,” Schmidt explained. “We need only one accident.”
At the crash site, the investigators look for cockpit instruments as well as the black box — which is neither black nor a box. In fact, it’s bright orange and more of a round shape.
Schmidt outlined what his role was in finding out how the F-15 took off without realizing that so many birds were in his path.
“After the F-15 incident with the pelicans, we started the investigation with a few key questions: What was the real damage? What did the pilot know? Who knew about the birds in the plane’s path? How was such a huge flock undetected by both radar and bird watchers in the area?”
Thus the investigation began. “We did not ask what was wrong, but what was the logic of the thinking that led to the emergency. We don’t want to put the subjects of our investigation on the defensive. Once we understand the logic that led to the accident, we can decide if we want to change it.”
Investigators studied video footage from the control tower in order to see who was doing what – and why the F-15 was given permission to take off. They studied the air traffic computers from the time, interviewed the ecologists and bird watchers, and spoke with other pilots who had flown in the same area that same morning. They also looked at the physical damage to the airplane. With this information, investigators were able to begin to connect the dots.
Other investigators study physical evidence for clues.
Lt. Col. Ofer Levy has been the failure analysis department commander in the IAF for 12 years. He has a masters degree in engineering and on his way to a doctorate.
His department serves the entire Air Force — planes, helicopters and drones. Wherever an accident happens, Levy oversees the investigation.
In the corner of his office on the Tel Nof Airbase are neatly packed bags with emergency equipment, much like Schmidt keeps in his Tel Aviv office.
“Our job is to be ready in one hour — any time, day or night,” Levy explained. “I approach every investigation with three simple questions: What happened? Why? And how do we prevent it from happening again?”
His work doesn’t just save Israeli lives, but American lives as well. Levy said he shares the results of his investigations with other Air Forces, especially the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. aerospace manufacturers, such as Boeing, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.
Levy manages the labs that investigate all available evidence from a crash site. “It’s like CSI every day in here,” he said.
In a well air-conditioned room, a small team operates an electron microscope that costs half a million dollars. “Usually very senior people operate such an expensive microscope, but here we have enlisted soldiers,” Levy said. “It’s a huge responsibility for them.”
He held up an example of a helicopter part that his team studied for evidence. Markings on the piece of metal provide clues to the cause of the crash.
“If two objects collide, each object will leave its mark on the other,” Levy explained. “If, for example, we find the element cadmium, and we know there are no suspicious cadmium parts in the helicopter, then we know a foreign object collided with the helicopter and that the crash was not due to mechanical failure.”
A variety of microscopes and expensive equipment analyze other evidence, including fingerprints, composite materials, oils, paints and more. One room in Levy’s corridor is full of materials engineers who apply their knowledge of metallurgy to crash investigations.
“We take a lot of parts and try to piece together the whole picture,” he said.
So what happened that caused an F-15 to fly into a flock of pelicans?
After a thorough investigation, the IAF learned a number of facts about the incident:
- A helicopter flew in the area of the flock minutes before the F-15, but it was lower than the flock and did not notice them.
- An ecologist in the control tower checked the bird radar, but was given an incorrect altitude reading. Though the ecologist expressed concern, the takeoff was authorized.
- One of the control tower personnel guessed that the radar was showing traffic on the highway seen below. Control tower personnel used binoculars to check for a flock of birds, but could not see one.
- Bird watchers in the field were late with their reports.
- The fire from the left engine disabled the sensors in the right engine, which is why the pilot received indications that his right engine was on fire.
Today, the lines of communication before each takeoff have improved — there are now logs of who is talking to whom. Everybody has a clearer picture before the plane takes off.
Schmidt and Levy know that their investigations are making a difference. In the 1970s and 1980s, the IAF was losing 20 to 30 aircraft per year, which back then was considered an acceptable number. Nowadays, the number is dramatically lower — an average of two incidents per year.
Because the IAF investigates accidents — and close calls — so thoroughly, the men and women who fly planes and helicopters can feel a little bit safer as they carry out their important missions.