Contractor crushed by T-38 jet suffered broken ribs, spinal fractures

by Vern Evans

A civilian maintainer was hospitalized for nearly a week with multiple broken bones and other injuries after the nose of a T-38A Talon training jet collapsed on him at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in February 2023, according to an Air Force investigation.

The unnamed contractor was lubricating the Talon’s landing gear as part of routine maintenance on the jet, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, when he removed a safety pin that caused the nose gear to retract as he worked on the plane, the service concluded in an investigation report published March 28.

The Talon’s nose crushed the man for several minutes, breaking several ribs and leaving him with spinal fractures. It took seven people to lift the aircraft off of him; he was airlifted to a hospital in Texas.

Aircraft damages cost more than $116,000 to repair, the report said. The Talon’s forward nose landing gear door, an antenna, forward fuselage and pitot boom, which calculates speed, were damaged in the accident, which was classified as a “Class B” mishap. Class B incidents cause between $600,000 and $2.5 million in damages, permanent partial disability or inpatient hospitalization of three or more personnel, or a combination of those factors.

The maintainer worked for Texas-based M1 Support Services, a contractor that maintains T-38s for the 49th Maintenance Group at Holloman. He was qualified to work on fighter jets, and had several years of experience working on helicopters with the Alaska Air National Guard. However, the accident report noted that the contractor’s tendency to deviate from required maintenance guidance and procedures “substantially contributed” to the mishap.

His errors included removing the safety pin, which locks the landing gear in place, while the aircraft was not suspended by jacks; applying grease to the aircraft by putting it on his hand, instead of using a lube gun; and pulling on components with “noticeable force” when the Talon began to fall, according to the report. He also failed to review aircraft maintenance forms and perform a safety check before beginning his work that day, investigators said.

In addition, the Air Force found that the maintainer had signed off on paperwork for a pre-flight check on a different aircraft earlier in the day, writing that the work was done at 6 p.m. He had already been taken to a hospital by 4 p.m. that day.

Investigators also noted that M1 Support Services had slipped in regularly turning around flight-ready aircraft, based on the company’s own records, but said the contractor’s operational tempo wasn’t a factor in last year’s mishap. No personnel appeared to be lacking in training or maintenance qualifications. Investigators also found that though the mishap aircraft’s nose wheel and tire assembly were replaced earlier in the month because of a wobble, that didn’t contribute to the accident.

M1 Support Services declined to comment.

The Air Force operates a fleet of more than 500 supersonic T-38s, which are used to train American and foreign fighter and bomber pilots. The service is planning to eventually replace the six-decade old Talons with the T-7 Red Hawk.

The jet weighs more than 6,600 pounds, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Its maximum takeoff weight can reach about 12,000 pounds when loaded with fuel and additional equipment.

The Air Force logged three Class A and B mishaps in the T-38, as well as 21 accidents during ground operations across all aircraft, in fiscal year 2023, according to safety data the service provided to Air Force Times.

T-38s have recorded at least one Class A mishap each year since FY18 as well. Those accidents accrue more than $2.5 million in damages, destroy an aircraft, or cause a fatality or permanent disability.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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