Pilot blacked out before Nevada crashAn experienced instructor pilot killed during a training exercise in the Nevada desert blacked out because of gravitational forces, according to an Air Force investigation.
By: By Cristina Silva, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
LAS VEGAS — An experienced instructor pilot killed during a training exercise in the Nevada desert blacked out because of gravitational forces, according to an Air Force investigation.
Capt. Eric Ziegler, 30, was found leaning forward in his seat in a position consistent with being unconscious after the June 28 crash north of Las Vegas, concluded the report obtained Friday by The Associated Press. Investigators found no maintenance problems or other issues that could have caused the accident.
The crash occurred under clear skies while Ziegler and another pilot simulated air-to-air combat 18,000 feet above the Nevada wilderness. It was the final training exercise Ziegler needed to complete before he could start the elite U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
His determination to put on a perfect performance and assure his promotion may have clouded Ziegler’s concentration and contributed to his inability to counteract the gravitational forces, investigators said. To do so, pilots are expected to contract their lower body muscles and breathe in as much air as possible, which increases blood flow to the eyes and brain and helps maintain consciousness and sight.
Ziegler was 26 minutes into the mission when witnesses saw the jet take a dive during a planned high-speed turn, a challenging but doable maneuver. There was no evidence that Ziegler tried to eject or maneuver the jet before the impact. Investigators said he should have been able to complete the turn, but “slight fatigue” likely contributed to his life-ending error.
Ziegler and the other pilot were on their fourth flight of the mission when the other pilot noticed a bright flash below him. The other pilot tried to communicate with Ziegler, but received no response. An autopsy showed Ziegler died instantly from injuries sustained during the impact. It’s likely that he was still unconscious when the jet crashed, the report states. The Las Vegas Review-Journal first reported the investigation findings.
Ziegler was an experienced instructor pilot with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2003 and earned a master’s degree in 2010. He had served in South Korea and Germany and had flown more than 1,300 hours throughout his career.
The day before he died, Ziegler learned that his grandfather had died. According to the report, he was so upset that he missed his freeway exit on the drive to work. The death was not a surprise, but Ziegler removed himself from flying for the day because he worried his grief would affect his judgment and concentration.
Still, he prepared as much as possible for the simulated air battle, using white boards to chart the exercise and checking the weather. He reviewed the jet before the mission and did not discover any anomalies.
He returned to work the next day sober and in good health. His friends said he was focused and ready to fly. His wife later said he had been well-rested that morning. Crash investigators concluded that his emotional state was “a minor factor, at most, for cause of the accident.”
Nellis, which trains pilots in military flight and combat, frequently sends jets soaring over empty Nevada desert. Ziegler died in a plane similar to the ones used by the Air Force’s aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. The single-seat F-16C Fighting Falcon is a “relatively low-cost, high-performance weapon system,” the report states. The destroyed jet was valued at $21.3 million.
Ziegler was married with a young daughter and was a native of West Fargo, N.D. He was president of his 1999 high school class and helped the school’s football team win a state championship that year.
A 2008 accident killed a Nellis airman after he went into a violent spin while attempting a basic turn maneuver at about 350 mph in an F-15 jet.