Pilot, Backseater Safe After Thunderbirds F-16D Flips After Landing

Capt. Erik Gonsalves (left), Thunderbird No. 8 advanced pilot and narrator, and TSgt. Kenneth Cordova (right), a tactical aircraft maintainer and member of the Thunderbirds enlisted team, were safely ejected from the F-16D they were flying in June 23, 2017, after flipped over after landing prior to an airshow in Dayton, Ohio. Thunderbirds photos.

An Air Force Thunderbirds’ pilot and a member of the Thunderbirds’ enlisted team are in “good condition” after the F-16D they were flying in flipped over after landing in Dayton, Ohio, during high winds early Friday afternoon.

Capt. Erik Gonsalves, Thunderbird No. 8 advance pilot and narrator, remained in the hospital Friday evening. He posted a message on Twitter, thanking people for their “love and support” and said, “I’m doing ok.” During a press conference Friday night, Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Jason Heard said Gonsalves suffered “some lacerations as well as some injuries to his leg, but he’s in stable to good condition and doing very well.” The second passenger, TSgt. Kenneth Cordova, a tactical aircraft maintainer who enlisted in the Air Force in 2009, did not suffer any “visible injuries and he’s going to be doing just fine,” said Heard.

It took nearly an hour and a half to extract Gonsalves from the aircraft and “another 10 to 20 minutes” after that to extract Cordova, said Heard.

“They were very brave throughout and they assisted in their own recovery levels,” said Heard, who arrived on the scene a few minutes after the mishap.

The two-seat F-16D took off around 10:30 a.m. on a single-ship familiarization flight prior to the Vectren Dayton Air Show. The mishap occurred after landing around 12:20 p.m., the Thunderbirds said in a statement on Twitter. The show was later cancelled.


An Air Force Thunderbirds F-16D flipped over after landing in Dayton, Ohio, on June 23, 2017. Photo by Ty Greenlees, Dayton Daily News.


Each member of the Thunderbirds enlisted team gets the chance to fly at least once during their tour. The familiarization flights are intended to help them better understand the mission so they can explain it to the public during shows.

Heard said an accident investigation board will determine the cause of the crash, but he noted that the aircraft, which landed some 300 feet off the end of the runway, “met all requirements” for landing in poor weather.

Gonsalves is an experienced F-16 pilot with about 1,600 hours in the cockpit, including “quite a bit of combat experience,” said Heard. As an advanced pilot he does not fly the demonstrations, but is tasked with arriving to the show before the rest of the team to make sure the site is ready to receive the aircraft. He also conducts familiarization flights with enlisted team members, flies members of the media, and narrates the show.”

The last time a Thunderbirds aircraft crashed was in June 2016 following a flyby of the Air Force Academy graduation. Maj. Alex Turner, the pilot, was able to safely eject following that crash and the aircraft landed remarkably intact near Colorado Springs, Colo. A total of 23 airmen have died during the team’s 64 year history.

“Every member of this team loves and respect every other member. We’re clearly very, very happy that they are safe, that they are being taken care of right now, and that their injuries were not much worse than they are,” said Heard.

Read Editorial Director John A. Tirpak’s story on the Thunderbirds from the July 2016 issue of Air Force Magazine.