An Air Force pilot crashed his F-16 Fighting Falcon in a deep wooded area in Michigan's Upper Peninsula last December after experiencing spatial disorientation and the inability to recover the fighter jet, according to an Accident Investigation Board report released Wednesday.
The service said contributing factors included bad weather; Jones' failure to properly identify the horizon because he was wearing night vision goggles; fixation on various avionics systems in the cockpit while neglecting the overall situational awareness; and the aircraft's "loss of satellite tracking data," the report states.
Jones and a wingman, also flying an F-16, were conducting a night training flight on Dec. 8 that simulated a mission to intercept an aircraft that had strayed into a restricted flight zone, according to the report.
The accident occurred around 7:15 p.m. local time in the Hiawatha National Forest, roughly 300 miles northeast of Truax.
The two F-16s were supposed to rendezvous with a Wisconsin Civil Air Patrol aircraft that they would then track in the scenario, but because of weather conditions in the Green Bay area, the CAP intercept was canceled. The F-16s proceeded with their own two-plane mission, taking off at about 6:45 p.m.
Four minutes later, Jones noted an anomaly in the GPS. He told his wingman to radio over any corrections should he "drift off course," the report states. At 6:51, he put on his night vision goggles.
Prior to arrival at the next checkpoint, Jones said he would try an inflight alignment to recalibrate the inertial navigation system while troubleshooting the GPS malfunction. At the same time, the two pilots moved to switch roles, with the wingman leading the formation and Jones following.
Jones used his attitude display indicator as backup to track his orientation relative to the horizon.
Several other indicators such as attitude information and flight path markers, were also missing from the heads-up display, Jones said, as noted in the investigation. There had been no improvement with the embedded GPS following the troubleshoot attempt. Jones again tried to recalibrate the inertial navigation system.
The night grew darker as they headed further north. Jones at the wingman were about 3 nautical miles apart.
Jones radioed, "Looks like I'm getting into the weather.... Are you able to keep track of me?" Seconds later, Jones said he was "blind" at 10,000 ft mean sea level, meaning he had lost visual contact with the wingman, but was tracking him on radar. The distance between them grew to 5 nautical miles.
The wingman said he would press "a little further forward" before turning, the report says.
Trying to establish deconfliction of "vertical and horizontal means," Jones began a series of heading, altitude and attitude changes where his nose dipped. He also banked right, all while flying at speeds of 600 knots, or nearly 700 miles per hour.
Investigators determined Jones' modeled flight path resembled a "split S," a complicated aerial maneuver in which a pilot inverts partially into a half-loop in order to descend and turn into the opposite direction.
Instead he flew nose-first into the ground; he did not attempt to eject, the report states.
"At the time of impact, the aircraft was approximately 58 degrees nose low, with over 20 degrees of right bank, heading 205 degrees, and traveling over 600 knots," officials said.
A pre-flight inspection had taken place two days prior with no discrepancies. A further review of the aircraft's historical maintenance record revealed two unscheduled maintenance events during the 90 days preceding the mishap.
While "there is no evidence to indicate they contributed to the mishap," one of the maintenance upgrades included replacement of the embedded GPS.
A maintainer who made the modification said almanac data showed the aircraft had been able to connect to five GPS satellites. Furthermore, the F-16 had previously flown six sorties with the new embedded GPS with no issues, the report states.
There was some local precipitation and light snow north of the forest site, but the pilots only experienced scattered clouds at most, the investigation states. The wingman told investigators the darkness of the surrounding water, namely Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, "could create visual illusions" while in flight.
Jones had more than 560 hours of instrumentation experience while in flight and nearly 300 hours using night vision goggles, or NVGs. "The [mishap pilot] was current and qualified at instrument and night flying, with and without the aid of NVGs," officials said. "On the night of the mishap, the degraded primary flight data available to [Jones] created an increased dependence on standby instruments for aircraft orientation."
That's why Jones was intent on fixing the issues, the report added.
The combination of "night, weather conditions, the use of NVGs, low illumination, the [F-16's] altitude, attitude and airspeed, as well as [Jones'] breakdown in visual scan of the available primary and standby instrumentation impacted [his] ability to recognize, confirm, and recover from the unusual attitude created by the spatially disorienting event," said Brig Gen. David Smith, president of the Accident Investigation Board.
Local emergency responders, the Coast Guard, additional Air Force units and other government agencies initiated immediate search-and-rescue efforts on the ground, in the air, and in the water following the crash.
Jones, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, joined the Guard in 2011, according to a Facebook announcement from the 115th Fighter Wing following the crash. He completed F-16 basic qualification training in 2015 and deployed to Japan that same year to support operations in the Pacific, the Facebook post said.
Jones deployed to Korea in 2017, and to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel in 2019, it said. Jones' awards include two Air Medals with combat 'C' devices.
Jones is survived by his wife and two children, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.