RCAF CF-18 Demo Pilot Saves Aircraft After Real-Life ‘Top Gun’ Incident at Airshow

CF-18 birdstrike
The Canadian Forces CF-18 Demo Team jet circles overhead at Willow Run Airport immediately after a bird was sucked into the aircraft's right engine (red circle). (All images: Author)

RCAF CF-18 Demo Hits Bird in Michigan In A Scene That Seemed To Be Right Out Of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’.

It was like a page torn from the script of the new Hollywood blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick”. But unlike the Hollywood version, the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Demonstration Team managed to land the aircraft after handling the emergency with cool professionalism.

On Wednesday, June 8, 2022, at the Wild Wednesday Air Show at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Canadian Forces CF-18 Demonstration Team was headlining the mid-week evening airshow when their aircraft suffered a bird strike, that caused a loud explosion to be heard across the airport and led to an engine failure.

Canadian Forces CF-18 Demo Team pilot, Capt. Jesse Haggart-Smith, taxis out for his flight demonstration immediately before the bird strike incident.

When RCAF Safety Pilot, Capt Kevin Mittelholtz, was asked if it was a bird strike that caused the engine explosion and flame out during the demo being flown by Capt. Jesse Haggart-Smith, Capt. Mittelholtz told TheAviationist, “Yeah, he saw it [the bird] airborne”.

Canadian Forces CF-18 Demo Team pilot, Capt. Jesse Haggart-Smith, taxis out for his flight demonstration immediately before the bird strike incident.

The aircraft was near the upper portion of the aerobatic box, the airspace used for flight demos at airshows, when the crowd saw a bright explosion from the CF-18’s right, starboard engine. The explosion was heard by the crowd a second later as Capt. Haggart-Smith immediately leveled the aircraft and began his emergency checklist for recovery from an engine failure. As Capt. Haggart-Smith ran his checklist he circled over the demonstration field away from the airshow crowd. Once his emergency procedures were completed, he made a controlled landing without incident.

CF-18 Demo Team members discuss the bird strike incident with Capt. Jesse Haggart-Smith following his emergency landing at Willow Run Airport on Wednesday.

The incident added some reality to the Hollywood fiction from the scene in “Top Gun: Maverick” where an F/A-18F suffers a bird strike, that eventually leads to a crash after both the crew members ejected.

But while the Canadian Forces RCAF CF-18 Demo Team handled Wednesday’s bird strike incident with professionalism, bird strikes can be catastrophic, even for large multi-engine commercial aircraft. Recall the January 15, 2009 bird strike incident when U.S. Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 being flown by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, was forced to ditch in the Hudson River in New York after a bird strike caused both engines on the airliner to fail.

Wednesday’s incident was at least the second time a bird strike occurred during a flight demonstration at Willow Run Airport. In 2014, a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flying as Thunderbird #3 flown by Maj. Caroline Jensen, ingested a bird into its intake. Maj. Jensen was able to keep the F-16’s engine running and made an emergency landing before switching the team’s reserve jet to rejoin the diamond formation and complete the show.

While bird strikes are always serious, especially in single or twin engine tactical aircraft with only one crewmember, Wednesday’s incident demonstrated the real world of military aviation and the professionalism of military pilots such as Capt. Jesse Haggart-Smith.

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.