Flying Blind: Defog of War

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Surely you’ve been driving down the street when, though no fault of your own, your windshield fogs up and you suddenly find yourself driving blind. Now imagine you’re flying an F-16 on the verge of landing amid an air show crowd – not to mention lots of vintage airplanes – when your canopy cockpit fogs up.

That’s precisely what happened last July as an Alabama Air National Guard fighter was preparing to land at a Wisconsin air show. According to an investigation into the hard landing released this week, the plane’s air-conditioning system went bonkers in the final seconds of flight. The pilot followed proper instructions, but couldn’t clear his windscreen in time:

Sure, there’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo in that summary, but even reading through the fog, the bottom line is clear: the pilot was flying blind. Without visual clues, he was unable to determine his plane’s angle of attack to the ground, and so he landed without applying his air brakes. Lacking their stopping power, he didn’t have enough runway left to come to a stop, and plowed through 300 feet of grass, snapping his nose landing gear, before the plane finally came to a halt. “There was a lot of smoke — a little bit of fire came out the tail pipe when it came to a stop,” an eyewitness at Whittman Regional Airport south of Oshkosh said.

“The ECS [environmental control system] fog cleared as the engine ingested dirt and sod,” the accident report notes. Better late than never. The pilot walked away from the scene with only bumps and bruises. But the foggy landing did $5.4 million in damage to the F-16.