The Air Force reversed itself Friday and found that the pilot of an F-16 jet fighter shared the blame for a 1994 midair collision that killed 23 soldiers and injured more than 100 others in one of the military’s worst peacetime accidents.
An earlier Air Force inquiry exonerated the pilot and instead blamed air traffic controllers for failing to prevent the collision of the F-16 and a C-130 transport plane over Pope Air Force Base, N.C., on March 23, 1994.
The pilot of the F-16, Capt. Joseph Jacyno, ejected safely before his jet fighter plunged to the ground, hit a parked cargo plane and slammed into a staging area where hundreds of Army paratroopers were gathered, engulfing many of the soldiers in a fireball. The C-130 landed safely.
The Air Force reopened the investigation earlier this year after the Defense Department’s inspector general, prompted by a complaint from an air traffic controller about a possible cover-up, found that the Air Force had failed to adequately review the actions of the F-16 pilot.
In a report made available Friday, Air Force investigators said that Jacyno’s judgment “was delayed and questionable” because he did not ask air traffic controllers about the exact location of the C-130 even after he was told that it was in the vicinity.
Jacyno, who is still flying and is assigned to Moody Air Base in Georgia, did not return a telephone call seeking comment. The report said Air Force commanders would determine whether disciplinary action was needed.
The new Air Force report makes clear the pressures placed on Jacyno, who had only seconds to decide what to do after he was notified that the C-130 was in the area.
“The flight paths of his aircraft and the C-130 made it impossible for him to see the C-130 for all but 12 seconds after he started a simulated flameout maneuver, and during that 12 seconds the camouflage-painted C-130 was nearly impossible to see against the forested terrain,” the Air Force said.
The report quoted Jacyno as saying that he did not realize that the C-130 was “right in front of me until I hit it.”
Still, the report found that even though he could not see the C-130, Air Force investigators “concluded that the F-16 pilot did not use all available means to determine where it was located - they found that there were no clearly extenuating circumstances that absolved the F-16 pilot from being able to see and avoid the C-130, once he knew that there was traffic in the area.”
The air traffic controllers were blamed, as in the original report, for having provided the F-16 and the C-130 with inaccurate instructions.