96 Seconds

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It takes years to become an F-16 pilot, but only seconds to lose your plane – and perhaps your life – when things go haywire. On May 4, an Air Force pilot aboard a Viper during a routine war game over Utah ran into serious trouble when a fan blade exploded, destroying his single engine.

The anomaly that shattered the blade should have been detected when the Air Force overhauled the General Electric engine in 2004 and outfitted it with new turbine blades “straight from the manufacturer,” according to the just-released official Air Force probe into the crash.

While both GE and an Air Force maintainer let the pilot down, the pilot “correctly applied all critical action procedures.” He ejected from the doomed aircraft and rescued, uninjured, in the Great Salt Lake Desert about 50 miles west of Hill Air Force Base.

The chart above provides a neat snapshot of the 96 seconds between the powerplant’s demise and the pilot’s ejection, tracking time, altitude, warnings inside the cockpit and the pilot’s reactions:

The clipped conversation detailed in the investigation can only hint at the pressure the pilot felt, flying with the call sign Troll 12:

Zero Seconds: Engine explodes.

Plus 5 Seconds: “Troll 12’s emergency.”

Plus 18 Seconds: Aircraft Number “2 just lost the motor, heading out west towards Eagle” range, flat and desolate, away from mountains.

Plus 46 Seconds: Attempting “second restart now, looks like it’s not going anywhere. I felt a pretty big bang.”

Plus 77 seconds: “Passing 6000 [Mean Sea Level, about 2,000 feet above the ground] now, motor’s still at 30% [RPM], I’m getting out.”

Plus 96 seconds: Canopy warning light illuminates, indicating ejection.