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Fatal U2 Crash in CA Last Year Blamed on Student Pilot Error

A U-2 Dragon Lady soars above the flightline at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Jan. 22, 2014. The low-altitude handling characteristics of the aircraft and bicycle-type landing gear require precise control during landing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings/Released)

A tragic error by a student pilot on his first U-2 training flight killed instructor Lt. Col. Ira Steve “Shooter” Eadie last September in Northern California, according to the results of a U.S. Air Force accident investigation report released this week.

The aircraft, a TU-2S assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, was conducting an “acceptance flight” training mission, the first of three for the trainee, which is standard practice for potential new U-2 pilots to familiarize themselves with operation of the aircraft under the supervision of a highly-experienced instructor.

According to the report, the student pilot (whom will remain unnamed per USAF privacy policy) was performing an “approach to stall” maneuver when he accidentally put the bird into an unintentional secondary stall while trying to recover from the first.

The aircraft actually performed the simulated stall 3 times. The first stall went well (flown by the student), while the second was flown by Eadie to show the student “less aggressive” use of controls and smoother yoke movement.

The fatal mistake occurred on the third try.

During the training maneuver, the engine isn’t actually shut down, but instead goes into an “aerodynamic stall”, requiring the pilot to drop the nose and gain velocity to generate enough lift to stabilize the aircraft and resume safe flight.

The fatal error occurred because the student pulled out of the simulated stall too quickly and demanded too much vertical movement, before the spy plane known as Dragon Lady was capable of safely flying again.

The $32 million aircraft then went into a sharp left wing drop and excessive nose-low attitude; the crew was no longer in control, and was rolling upside down while also approaching the minimum uncontrolled ejection altitude.

At this point, Lt. Col. Eadie calmly gave the command to EJECT, and while his student pilot bailed out safely with minor injuries, Eadie himself slammed into the plane’s right wing, breaking off a 5-foot chunk of it and resulting in his death.

Eadie’s lap belt may not have been secured when he ejected too, based off burn analysis on the belt.

Lt Col. Eadie perished in the crash. (Photo: USAF)

The aircraft crashed into uninhabited grassy foothills south of the Sutter Buttes mountain range in the Sacramento Valley, and while nobody on the ground was injured the crash did set off a 250-acre wildfire.

“The purpose of this report was to identify the causes and contributing factors which may have contributed to the incident,” said Brig. Gen. David S. Nahom, president of the Accident Investigation Board. “This was a terrible tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences go out to Lt. Col. Eadie’s family.”

Eadie, a Florida native, was a 20-year military veteran of both the Navy and USAF, father of six and grandfather of a baby girl.

His student pilot has since recovered from his injuries and completed the necessary training required to pilot the U-2, and is doing so now.

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Written by Mike Killian

Mike Killian

Killian is an accomplished aerospace photographer and writer, specializing in rocket launch and air-to-air aviation imagery. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments, including working as a photographer for Breitling Jet Team in 2016.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.