F-16 Loses Gun Panel During Viper Demo Team’s Display Practice at Thunder Over Michigan Airshow

The F-16 pulls vapor as the missing panel is visible. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

11 Days After Incident at RIAT When Horizontal Stabilizer Delaminated, Another F-16 flown by the Viper Demo Team Loses Panel.

A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon, or “Viper”, lost an access panel in flight during the Friday, August 2 practice session for the 2019 Thunder Over Michigan airshow at Willow Run Airport in Romulus, Michigan.

This latest incident comes only 11 days after the same USAF F-16 Viper Demo Team pilot, in a different aircraft on loan 480th FS Warhawks from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, declared an in-flight emergency over RAF Fairford.

Photogapher and aviation expert James Woodard of FullDiscAviation.com alerted TheAviationist.com to the incident on Friday via Facebook when he shared a photo he shot of the panel flying off the aircraft in flight as it executed a high “G” turn at the south end of the restricted air space used for flight demonstration. Woodard, the owner and operator of Black Knight Aviation, an aviation media company created in honor of his brother, U.S. Army SGT. Michael Scusa, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009 as a member of a combat unit named “Black Knight Troop”, told TheAviationist.com, “The panel just flew off. Who knows where it went.”

Photographer James Woodard of FullDiscAviation.com captured the instant the access panel flew off the F-16 in flight. (Photo: James Woodard/FullDiscAviation.com)

“It does happen occasionally. It’s just normal operating for an F-16, or any aircraft really. Sometimes latches fail,” USAF F-16 Viper Demo Team Commander Major Garrett Schmitz, callsign “Toro”, told TheAviationist.com in an interview on Saturday at Thunder Over Michigan. “Essentially what happened yesterday was, a latch failed, and the panel came off. While it’s not common, I would say it’s not un-common. It’s nothing that we’re concerned about. It’s something that happens, it’s part of flying, we fix the jet and move on.”

The panel that separated was on the aircraft’s left side, just behind the F-16’s M61A1 six-barrel, 20mm Gatling gun internal placement. The panel is used to gain access to components of the M61A1 Gatling gun for maintenance.

The entire panel was removed to be replaced. (All images: Author, unless otherwise stated).

The panel detached from the aircraft following a series of high-speed, high “G” maneuvers routinely showcased during the demonstration of the F-16’s maximum performance capabilities at airshows.

“I didn’t actually know about it until after I landed.” Maj. Garrett “Toro” Schmitz told TheAviationist.com. “It’s not something you can hear, it’s not something you can feel. It essentially has no effect on the demonstration. Maj. Schmitz went on to tell TheAviationist.com that, “Normally F-16s aren’t pulling 9 G’s every day. Ours take a little more wear and tear than a normal F-16. I don’t think it’s the age, sometimes mechanical components fail and that’s what happened yesterday.”

The F-16 taxis after a normal landing with the missing panel visible.

Following the separation of the panel from the F-16, the demonstration practice concluded normally and Maj. Schmitz joined up with a P-51 Mustang in formation to complete the Heritage Flight demonstration before landing. After the panel detached emergency vehicles were seen briefly driving onto the airfield adjacent the main runway at Willow Run, but quickly returned to their ready parking positions when the incident was not declared an emergency.

The missing panel on the F-16 could be clearly seen as the aircraft continued normal rehearsal for the USAF Heritage Flight Formation with a P-51 Mustang.

The F-16 Demo Team completed their demonstration on Saturday normally using the second aircraft they brought to Willow Run Airport for Thunder Over Michigan.


About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.