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Report blames fatal crash of F-16 in June on pilot error

George Bryan Houghton
George Bryan Houghton

"Pull up, pull up, pull up, pull up," came the order.

It never happened.

On June 22, Hill Air Force Base F-16 pilot Capt. George Bryan Houghton was killed when his plane crashed at the Utah Test and Training Range, about 35 miles south of Wendover.

The U.S. Air Force's accident investigation board report released Monday states that Houghton's failure to recognize his altitude during a nighttime, low-altitude, high-angle strafing training caused the crash. (The full report in PDF format can be found at the following link.)

The $21.3 million aircraft, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, was destroyed; no other personal property was damaged.

Houghton had been on a night training mission in preparation for a deployment to Afghanistan. His unit is now there without him.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Houghton family," said Col. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing. "Captain G.B. 'Ice' Houghton was an exceptional pilot, devoted patriot, superb officer, loving husband and dedicated family man. He was a true warrior who made the ultimate sacrifice. His Air Force family misses him dearly."

Houghton was part of a four-ship formation training in close-air support by strafing — using the plane's cannons to shoot at targets on the ground.

Houghton's plane crashed at 10:27 p.m., just seconds after the order to pull up was given. Fellow pilots reported the crash to commanders, who sent a recovery team to the area.

The fighter wing's planes were also grounded the following day.

According to the accident investigation board report, Houghton was likely focused on visually positioning himself for an attack and was unaware of his low altitude.

There was no evidence Houghton attempted to recover from the diving approach on the target or that he attempted to eject, according to the report.

It was Houghton's first operational assignment in the F-16, in which he had 155.6 hours of flying time. Before flying the F-16, he had been a T-6 instructor pilot with more than 1,400 flying hours.

Despite his relative inexperience in the F-16, the report states that Houghton was qualified for the mission and had a "reputation in the squadron as an extremely motivated, disciplined, hard-working and professional officer … who seized every possible opportunity to improve his knowledge and skills."

The board report states that Houghton, who was using night-vision goggles, didn't recognize his altitude, scan his instruments or perceive the terrain, likely because he was focused on his simulated attack. The illumination in the area could have been so low that it was difficult to distinguish terrain features with night vision goggles, which restrict a pilot's field of view from 180 degrees to 40 degrees.

The plane's fight data recorder and signal acquisition unit were never recovered.

Before Houghton's crash, the most recent crash of an F-16 in Utah was March 30, 2006, when Lt. Jay Baer, of the 388th Fighter Wing's 421st Fighter Squadron, safely ejected before his plane crashed near Carrington Island in the Great Salt Lake. Baer suffered bumps and bruises, and his plane was destroyed on impact.

A failed bearing assembly was later blamed for the malfunction that brought Baer's plane down.

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