One year later, report and witnesses shed light on military jet crash

File photo

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the crash near March Air Force Base of an armed fighter jet into a warehouse, in which missiles came loose from the plane, requiring recovery and cleanup operations that went on for days.

The Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 114th Fighter Wing in South Dakota but on loan to a detachment at March, plunged through the roof of the 500,000-square-foot facility in the 22000 block of Opportunity Way about 3:40 p.m. on May 16, 2019.

According to findings published last month by a U.S. Air Force investigative panel, the $25 million jet suffered a hydraulic failure that rendered it uncontrollable, forcing the pilot to eject 250 feet above the ground, leaving the F-16 to glide unmanned into the structure.

“I heard the whole thing go down on the (public safety communication) system, and I made some announcements to our guys to be aware of hazards when we go there,” Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Epps, supervisor of the Hazardous Material Team, or bomb squad, told City News Service. “There was a little chaos at first, but that’s how these things start, then it went pretty smooth.”

According to the principal crash investigator, USAF Col. Eric Paulson, the Falcon and another Air National Guard F-16 had been engaged in a “tactical intercept training mission” 120 miles east of March and were returning to the base, passing overhead Palm Springs, when the ill-fated jet began bleeding hydraulic pressure. Paulson said two improperly installed
hydraulic check valves were the source of the trouble.

The pilot, whose identity has never been disclosed, successfully burned fuel before reaching March, but on final approach, he could not maintain control of the fighter, and he ejected as the jet rolled sharply to the west, across Interstate 215.

His parachute deployed, and he drifted onto Runway 14, where he was picked up by a base rescue unit. His injuries were minor, and he remains active with the Air National Guard.

The F-16 punched a hole in the roof of the See Water Inc. warehouse, and the indoor fire suppression sprinkler system automatically engaged, according to Cal Fire.

Agency Division Chief Abdul Ahmad told CNS he was among the first to arrive and confirmed the fire sprinkler pipes had been severed by the impact, but “there was still water pouring out,” and it was sufficient to smother the flames.

Ahmad said five to 10 people who were in the warehouse were treated as victims, though he did not believe they had more than superficial injuries.

Personnel from multiple agencies converged on the location, and March technicians immediately alerted fire crews to the presence of four missiles carried by the Falcon.

A half-hour after the crash, the CHP closed Interstate 215 at the state Route 60 interchange to the north and the Ramona Expressway in Perris to the south for public safety. According to Caltrans traffic flow data, as many as 49,000 motorists were forced to find alternate routes to their destinations when the freeway was taken out of service that afternoon.

Epps said after he and his four bomb technicians arrived at the site, they coordinated with USAF personnel to scour the wreckage for the missiles and ammunition from the jet’s 20 mm cannon.

“Everything was wet and full of water,” he said. “The aviation fuel wasn’t a big deal, but it was mixing with the water and running down a loading ramp.”

Ahmad said the tainted fluid pooled in a retention basin. He acknowledged a number of critical steps dealing with the aftermath of the crash, but said the operation proceeded without major drama.

“We prepare to respond to an incident of this magnitude,” he said. “That led to our success mitigating it.”

As firefighters worked to contain the fuel seepage, two sheriff’s and two USAF bomb technicians donned “fully encapsulated” protective suits with oxygen tanks and entered the warehouse, Epps said.

“There’s pallets and forklift stuff all over the place,” he said. “So our guys are climbing on the aircraft, and the missiles are not under it. We start looking around, and there’s half a missile on the roof of the building.”

The remainder of the broken armament was found inside the warehouse, as were the other three missiles, still attached to their racks, according to Epps.

The bomb squad commander and military sources said the ordnance did not explode because the propulsion systems did not ignite due to a lack of intense flames, and the missile warheads had not been activated.

Epps said the March techs secured the missiles and took possession of the jet’s cannon and ammo.

“We worked through the night, until some Marine explosives techs from Miramar relieved us,” he said.

The sergeant said he and his men rested a few hours, then Air Force officials made another request — dispose of the missiles.

“The ordnance was trucked over to the Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, and Cal Fire brought out backhoes to dig some 12-foot deep holes, about four feet wide,” Epps said.

With the freeway still closed and the immediate area cordoned off, the missiles were buried and then detonated using C-4 charges, according to Epps.

“That was pretty much it for our part,” he said. “Very few public safety bomb techs can say they’ve coordinated a response for a military jet crash. But that’s what we do — take stuff apart and blow it up.”

I-215 was reopened shortly after 4 p.m. on May 17, 2019. However, firefighters and USAF personnel came and went to the crash site over the next week for cleanup details and investigation. The cleanup costs totaled about $4 million.

According to Paulson, the F-16’s right side integrated servo actuator, which manages hydraulics for the plane’s control surfaces, had undergone an overhaul four months prior to the crash. Three months later, a leak emerged, prompting further work on the mechanism. In that process, the check valves that meter hydraulic fluid were not “seated properly,” or screwed on right, resulting in high-pressure forces damaging the valve bodies, allowing leaks to develop that, after 16 hours of flying time, triggered the failure that caused the crash, Paulson wrote.

It is unclear whether the Air Force is pursuing procedural changes to address the errors.