—By Adam J. Hebert
February 1, 2008— It could have happened to any pilot in any of hundreds of F-15s. Fate, however, picked Maj. Stephen Stilwell, and the seeming randomness of the Nov. 2, 2007 accident was one thing that made it so dramatic.
Without warning, Stilwell's Missouri Air National Guard F-15C—serial #80-0034—broke in half while in flight. In January the Air Force released details of the fighter’s last moments.
At 9:50 a.m. that November day, Stilwell took off from Lambert Field at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Missouri for a standard air-to-air training mission. The mishap aircraft was an average F-15C flown by a typical pilot for basic fighter maneuver training.
Stilwell was joined by three other pilots flying F-15s. About 90 miles from St. Louis, the four pilots prepared for some head-to-head air combat. On this day, the flight lead was "Mick 1" and Stilwell was "Mick 2." The other two pilots, "Mick 3" and "Mick 4," split off to train separately.
The flight lead and Stilwell performed a pair of 4 to 5 G warm-up turns to prepare for their upcoming dogfight. Their first engagement was uneventful. The second engagement would be the opposite.
At 18,000 feet altitude and with the fighters nearly two miles apart, Stilwell radioed to Mick 1, "fight's on." The flight lead made an 8 G turn to the right, with Stilwell in pursuit.
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He returned to level flight, and the aircraft's G-load dropped to 1.5 Gs. Two seconds after the knock-it-off call, however, his flight lead saw Stilwell’s F-15 split into two large pieces. With obvious distress, the flight lead radioed to Mick 2: "Eject! Eject!" A pause. "Two, eject!"Stilwell was “in the forward fuselage, separated from the rest of the aircraft,” said Col. William Wignall, who led the accident investigation. He never heard that radio call.
As the Eagle snapped apart, its canopy broke off and smashed into Stilwell's left arm, breaking it and dislocating his shoulder. The event was so sudden and violent, said Stilwell, that he at first thought his canopy had flipped back and hit one of the Eagle’s stabilizers.
Once he saw a parachute, Mick 1's training kicked in and he called the other pilots. "Three and Four, safe it up, climb high," Mick 1 said, his voice now noticeably calmer. "Mick 2's airplane just broke in half."
Wignall said it was "probably the most chilling call that I'd ever heard."
Stilwell took 11 minutes to descend. He knew he was injured, but not how badly, so he stayed put until a Life Flight helicopter arrived and transported him to a local hospital for treatment.
The accident investigation found the fighter had suffered a broken longeron, which had accumulated 25 years of stress and strain. Once the longeron snapped, other structural components were unable to hold the F-15 together.
This problem appeared out of the blue; Stilwell reported that the F-15 was flying flawlessly until seconds before it broke apart.
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