Colorado Air National Guard brings new life to fallen Thunderbird tail

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Michelle Alvarez-Rea
  • 140th Wing Public Affairs

Airmen from the 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard removed the vertical tail from a fallen Thunderbird F-16 aircraft March 14, in hopes of someday returning it to service.


The F-16 was transported to Peterson Air Force Base after a Thunderbird flyover for the Air Force Academy graduation on June 2, 2016, during which, the pilot, Maj. Alex Turner, encountered a throttle malfunction and successfully ejected from the jet, avoiding any loss of life or damage to civilian property.


Senior Master Sgt. Timothy Buckner, equipment maintenance flight superintendent, 140th Maintenance Squadron, said the 140th Wing has an 18-person Crash Damage Disabled Aircraft Recovery team comprised of members from various shops within the 140th Maintenance Group, to include the structural, metals and phase inspection shops. 


The CDDAR team specializes in the safe and effective recovery of fallen aircraft following an in-flight emergency with little to no notice, at any time of day or night.  This diverse combination of subject matter experts brings a broad set of skills and knowledge to the team, explained Buckner. 


The team’s mission is to salvage, repair and recover the aircraft, with the intent to return it to duty, when and if possible.   


All CDDAR personnel attend a crash recovery course where they work through several scenarios to recover crashed or damaged aircraft.  In order to provide a more realistic training environment that best prepares teams for real world operations, trainees face scenarios involving a variety of different aircraft and conditions.  


Additionally, teams develop initial and annual CDDAR training plans and establish local training programs to maintain their skills. Because of this consistent level of readiness, the Air Force was able to rely on the 140th Wing’s CDDAR team when Thunderbird 6 crashed 90 miles south of Buckley Air Force Base. 


Colorado Guardsmen from Aurora, Colo. quickly answered that call and joined forces with the Air Reserve Component, 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs to retrieve the aircraft from the field and prepare it for secure transport to Peterson Air Force Base.


Once safely on the base, the damaged jet undergoes months of intense investigation and safety and maintenance checks by a team of authorities known as a Safety Investigation Board. 


Ten months later, the COANG returned to Peterson AFB to assist in the final recovery stages of the aircraft, the removal of the tail from the Thunderbird F-16.


Although the $29 million fighter jet was destroyed in the crash, the vertical tail from the fallen aircraft also happens to be the last F-16 Block 52 tail wing in Air Force inventory and will be a valuable asset if it is deemed able to return to the fleet.  


Master Sgt. Robert Baker, team chief for the recovery event, 140th Maintenance Group, explained that to take off the vertical tail of an F-16, a recovery team would typically need to remove the engine in order to get underneath the tail. 


However, due to the condition of the fallen aircraft, this team is executing a unique process, recommended by Air Force depot engineers, in which they will go in from above instead of below, allowing them to maintain the structural integrity of the tail. 


Once removed, the tail will be securely packaged and prepared for transport to Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah, where Air Force engineers will conduct a series of assessments to determine the future of the Thunderbird 6, vertical tail wing.