Base restores flights a day after Thunderbird crash

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho (AP) -- Military and civilian aircraft were allowed back on the runway Monday, a day after all flights were halted when a Thunderbird jet slammed into the ground during an air show.

The pilot, Capt. Chris Stricklin of Shelby, Ala., successfully ejected from the single-engine F-16C Fighting Falcon a split second before the crash. The 31-year-old pilot did not sustain any serious injuries.

The $23 million aircraft exploded on impact in front of a crowd of 85,000 people. The Thunderbird air demonstration was the marquee event of the two-day "Gunfighter Skies" air show, featuring military and civilian aerobatics and ground displays.

Local television stations and national news networks on Monday replayed video of the fiery crash countless times.

Stricklin, who has served one year with the prestigious unit and logged more than 1,500 hours as an Air Force pilot, was flying the last of six jets to take off in the "opposing solo" position.

His aircraft shot straight up, rolling as it ascended in a move called the "Split-S." At the top of the maneuver, Stricklin dropped the plane's nose into a steep dive. But at the bottom of the move, Stricklin's jet appeared to lose power just as he tried to pull up. He ejected less than a second before the jet belly-flopped into the ground near the control tower.

The exact distance between the crash and the crowd was not known, said Mountain Home base spokesman 1st Lt. Joseph Campbell, but viewers were never in danger.

"It happened in a built-in buffer zone, on the far side of the runway," Campbell said. However, it was much closer to the air traffic control tower, which was staffed at the time.

Those in the crowd watched in silence as the plane exploded, sending balls of flame high into the air. Minutes later, they erupted into a loud cheer as Stricklin untangled himself from his parachute harness and waved at the crowd across the field.

Stricklin was examined by base medical personnel and released late Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Steve Wood, commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, said Monday that investigators were working quickly to determine what caused the accident.

He did not know how long it would take to pinpoint the cause. He said the Thunderbirds have not been grounded.

"Senior Air Force leaders are currently evaluating what impact the crash will have on the Thunderbirds' remaining 2003 schedule," Wood said during a news conference at Nellis. "We hope to return to our demonstration schedule quickly once all safety issues have been addressed."

Many of the aircraft flown in for the air show were cleared for takeoff Monday afternoon, Campbell said. Stricklin was returned to his Thunderbirds team, which was expected to leave Monday evening or early Tuesday.

A spokeswoman said the Thunderbirds will continue their tour. The unit has several back-up aircraft. An air show is scheduled for Sept. 20-21 in Wichita, Kan., then Sept. 27-28 in Janesville, Wisc.

The Thunderbirds were officially activated May 25, 1953.


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