A Series of Mistakes Led to NATO’s Bloody Air Crash
A stray checklist and sloppy procedures might have caused a Greek F-16 to crash into a crowded tarmac
The twin-seat F-16D was airborne for just 7.8 seconds. Barely enough time for the two Greek air force pilots to register what was happening—and not enough time to safely eject before the single-engine jet fighter plunged to Earth, plowing into the crowded tarmac at Los Llanos air base in southern Spain during the middle of a NATO Tactical Leadership Program war game.
Ten people—eight of them French airmen on the ground—died immediately in the Jan. 26, 2015 incident, including the two flight lieutenants in the F-16, Panagiotis Laskaris, 35, and 32-year-old Athanasios Zagas. One French airman died in a hospital the next day, raising the death toll to 11. Thirty-three French and Italian ground personnel suffered injuries, some of them serious.
The accident also cost the Western alliance a staggering nine warplanes destroyed or damaged, including the F-16, two French air force Mirage 2000s, two French Alpha Jets, a French Rafale, two Italian AMXs and a U.S. Air Force F-15E. It appears only the F-15, one AMX and the Rafale were repairable.
The incident represented the worst loss of life for the French military since a bloody ambush in Afghanistan in 2008. Compounding the tragedy, the F-16’s plummet into the parked planes was totally preventable.
On July 27, an international investigative team revealed that someone apparently accidentally set the Greek fighter’s vertical tail rudder to the full right position before takeoff—and no one in the cockpit or among the ground crew noticed the improper setting before the F-16 launched.
“After takeoff, pilot stick commands and the resultant control surface outputs were insufficient to maintain the [aircraft] in controlled flight,” the investigators reported after spending six months recreating that terrible day in southern Spain.
Laskaris and Zagas realized their plane was doomed and ejected—just a second or two before the fighter and its thousands of pounds of fuel smashed into the ground, turning the tarmac into a demolition zone. Both men were caught in the explosions and died instantly.
The Greek air force and other F-16 operators should have rigorous procedures for preventing a fighter from taking off with the wrong rudder setting. But procedures broke down before the Los Llanos accident.
For starters, NATO gave the pilots participating in the TLP war game three laminated checklists that were unique to the exercise—and were, according to investigators, “additional flight equipment intended to be carried in the [aircraft].” Perhaps to make room for the extra checklists, Laskaris put his normal flight bag inside the cockpit map case. It seems he carried the checklists loose.
It’s standard practice for ground crews to inspect a plane during a pause at the end of the runway shortly before it takes off. An end-of-runway inspection should have caught the rudder problem.
But it didn’t—because the Greek airmen had begun conducting those checks earlier, on the ramp. “This change to normal procedures was adopted by all Greek participating squadrons for the previous few years and became common practice,” the investigators explained.
“The change to end-of-runway inspection order led the pilot to change his standardization order and consequently the before-takeoff checklist was conducted earlier in the launch sequence than normal,” the investigators continued.
“This procedural change modified the standard pilot’s habit patterns.” Instead of running through his own in-the-cockpit inspection of his fighter immediately before takeoff, Laskaris checked the F-16 while still parked on the ramp.
Sometime between taxiing away from the ramp and taking off, including a period of several minutes where the F-16 held at the end of the runway, something inside the cockpit jammed against the trim knob that sets initial rudder position. “The unintended trim knob movements were most likely caused by an object moving between a trim knob safety guard and the yaw trim knob on the manual trim panel, such as a TLP checklist.”
Neither Laskaris nor Zagas realized their plane was unfit for takeoff. The loose checklist or some other item—plus the sloppy ground procedures—had doomed them.
Lifting into the air at more than 100 miles per hour, the F-16 was already in trouble—the misaligned rudder drove it over on its right side and forced its nose down.
Applying opposite rudder might have helped. But Laskaris didn’t know that. “Being conditioned during the previous flight to believe that during the takeoff phase only minor rudder corrections were needed and allowed, he was not in a position to consider that the rudder input was a proper corrective action.”
The two Greek aviators ejected—but too late. The F-16 slammed into the ground. “The [aircraft] pieces and the subsequent fire … continued along the [aircraft]’s ground track and led to the destruction or damage of eight more [aircraft plus] fatal injuries to nine French air force personnel and numerous other injuries.”