September 14, 2003 - a Thunderbird F-16C crashed just after takeoff during an air show performance in Idaho. The pilot managed to eject 0.8 seconds before impact and walked away with only minor injuries.
As one might expect at an air show, there were many cameras trained on Thunderbird #6 when the accident occurred. Even so, this photo showing the $21 million jet just before impact is quite remarkable.
Even more remarkable is this video clip from an onboard camera showing the split-S maneuver and subsequent ejection from inside the cockpit. It’s a 4.1 megabyte mpeg, but if you can swing the bandwidth I highly recommend watching it.
As a side note, the accident investigation report was issued this week. It concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error. The pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” maneuver. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level (MSL) altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level (AGL) instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S maneuver.
It was a simple mistake. Unfortunately the stakes are very high when you’re performing low-level aerobatics.