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Air Force Thunderbirds Jet Crashes in Nevada Killing Pilot

An undisclosed Air Force Thunderbirds jet crashed on Wednesday claiming the life of its pilot. (Charles Atkeison)

LAS VEGAS — An Air Force Thunderbirds jet crashed during a practice flight on Wednesday resulting in the loss of an F-16 Fighting Falcon and its pilot.

The accident occurred at 10:30 a.m. PDT, over a remote sight in the Nevada desert located at the squadron’s Nevada Test and Training Range. The Thunderbirds jets were in the air on a normal practice flight to reherse for this weekend’s air show. The name of the pilot is being withheld until Thursday.

The Thunderbirds four jets which make-up the diamond formation and the two solo jets were beginning their routine practice demonstration over the field located north of Las Vegas. The squadron was scheduled to depart Nellis AFB on Thursday afternoon to travel to their next air show site at March Air Reserve Base near San Bernardino, California.

“The team’s participation at the March Air Reserve Base the March Field Air & Space Expo has been cancelled,” the Thunderbirds announced late Wednesday. “It is unknown how this accident will impact the remainder of the Thunderbirds season.”

The Thunderbirds mission is designed to recruit the next generation of Airmen; to retain the Air Force’s highly trained warfighters; and to inspire young adults around the world.

America’s Ambassadors in Blue completed the first two of 62 planned flight demonstrations during 2018 ten days earlier in Melbourne, Florida. The squadron’s 65th anniversary season was scheduled to return to the Sunshine State next Thursday to participate at the popular Sun-N-Fun air show.

Today’s crash of an F-16 jet marks the third Thunderbirds crash in the past 22 months. In June 2016, an F-16C Thunderbird 6 pilot had a ditch near Colorado Springs, Colorado, due to mechanical issue with the pilot ejecting safely. And, last June, a two-seat F-16D, piloted by current Thunderbird 8 Maj. Erik Gonsalves, flipped on landing due to inclemet weather in Dayton, Ohio, as the squadron prepared for an air show. Both Maj. Gonsalves and a Thunderbird crew member were hospitalized.

Led by new squadron leader and Thunderbird 1, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Thunderbirds 2 thru 6 pilots are Capt. Will Graeff, Maj. Nate Hofmann, Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, Maj. Whit Collins, and Capt. Matt Kimmel.

Air Force Chief-of-Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein issued a statement via Twitter following the official announcement, “(We) are mourning the loss of one of our Thunderbird pilots today, who died in an F-16 crash near Nellis Air Force Base. Please join us in honoring our fallen Airman and sending heartfelt condolences to the pilot’s family, teammates, friends, and all who are grieving.”

The Lead and opposing solo are popular during air shows for their high speed, flat passes, and their approach from either end of the runway only to pass a few feet from one another. The pair’s Calypso Pass features one jet above and inverted with their verticle tails in alignment from the perspective of the air show crowd.

“As the jets take to the skies and fly only a few feet from wingtip to wingtip, the crowd gets a glimpse of the awesome skills and capabilities that all fighter pilots must possess,” states the Thunderbirds Web Site. “The solo pilots integrate their own loud and proud routine, exhibiting some of the maximum capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon – the Air Force’s premier multi-role fighter jet.”

Nellis officials have confirmed that the accident is under investigation.

(Charles A. Atkeison flew V.I.P. with the USAF Thunderbirds recently. He reports on aerospace and science. Follow his updates on social media via @Military_Flight.)

Charles Atkeison

Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.

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