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Spatial Disorientation Caused F-16 Crash That Killed California Air Force Pilot

Capt. Lucas Gruenther

An Air Force investigation into the F-16 crash that killed California native Maj. Lucas "Gaza" Gruenther finds the pilot's spatial disorientation caused him to eject in unsafe conditions, leading to his death.

As Home Post reported earlier this year, the 32-year-old Gruenther was assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano Air Base. He was a 1999 graduate of Summerville High in Tuolumne City. Gruenther also graduated from the prestigious U.S. Air Force Academy.

Gruenther went missing during a night training mission off the coast of Italy on January 28. His body was recovered from the Adriatic Sea on January 31.

According to a report released Wednesday on the crash:

The cause of the mishap was the MP’s (Mishap Pilot) failure to effectively recover from spatial disorientation, due to a combination of weather conditions, the MP’s use of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), the MA’s (Mishap Aircraft) attitude and high rate of speed, and the MP’s breakdown in visual scan.

This led the MP to misjudge the imminent need to eject. The Board President also found, by clear and convincing evidence, that an immediate loss of the MP’s helmet upon the high-speed ejection, slack in the ejection seat harness, and a left yaw to the ejection seat as it left the MA, along with a 40 gravitational force snapback that followed the ejection seat’s drogue chute deployment, caused the MP’s injuries, which quickly resulted in his death.

Air Force pilot physician Lt. Col. Rob Monberg, who was part of the crash investigation board, told Stars and Stripes that spatial disorientation can happen to the most experienced and skilled of pilots:

“It could be any man on any mission. It doesn’t take very much to go wrong and you can end up in a bad situation.

“In this case, it took away time and situational awareness from Maj. Gruenther. He was probably afraid of his airplane being close to the water. He made the decision to get out [of the aircraft]. Not being sure where he was in the air space, that’s not an unreasonable decision.”

Gruenther was survived by his wife, Cassy, and their daughter Serene (born shortly after her father's death). Cassy said of her husband during his memorial service in Italy:

"He lived a live full of adventure and full of love. If he were here, he would challenge each and every one of you to go climb that mountain you've been waiting to climb, he would tell you to plan that trip you haven't planned, he would tell you to call that friend you've been thinking about, and he would tell you to be sure to tell your loved ones you love them every day.

"So I challenge you now, for him, and in his memory."

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