An Air Force pilot with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing crashed a T-38A Talon trainer jet earlier this year when they raised the plane’s landing gear too early during takeoff, according to an accident investigation report published Tuesday.

The pilot, a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, California, was practicing a touch-and-go landing with an instructor at nearby Sacramento Mather Airport on the morning of Feb. 18.

In touch-and-go drills, an aircraft briefly touches down on a runway before climbing back into the sky, circling around, and repeating the maneuver. Landing gears should be retracted when a plane is “definitely airborne” and continuously climbing, according to the report.

As the pilot started to ascend, he raised the landing gear, felt the aircraft sink and put the wheels down again. He felt the jet rising again, pointed the nose up and retracted the landing gear.

But the airman relied on his gut feeling rather than flight controls to judge whether they were far enough above the ground to pull up the landing gear, and raised it too early, investigators said.

“The [pilot] incorrectly perceived that the [aircraft] had established a positive climb rate following the second touch-and-go landing attempt,” the report said. “This misperception led him to raise the landing gear lever after feeling that the [aircraft] had begun to climb away from the runway.”

The jet dipped lower than the pilot thought, and the instructor noticed the landing gear seesawing while the jet sank toward the runway, the report said. The teacher grabbed the flight control stick and throttles to try to keep the T-38A airborne.

Still, the plane skidded down the runway on its belly for nearly 4,000 feet and caught fire in the right landing gear bay. Both passengers in the two-seat aircraft escaped uninjured.

Each was an experienced pilot in the U-2 Dragon Lady and the T-38A, which the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron uses to prepare airmen to fly the U-2. The accident cost more than $3 million, the Air Force said.

“The mishap event occurred during a basic mission profile with experienced aircrew, favorable conditions and no aircraft system problems that contributed to the mishap,” the report added.

Four people have died in T-38 accidents in the past year and a half, including one incident in November 2019 at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, and another on Feb. 19 at the Alabama Air National Guard’s Dannelly Field.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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