An F-16 fighter jet that crashed during a landing attempt in southern Israel Wednesday, killing its pilot, may have been flying “asymmetrically,” with ordnance on one wing but not the other, an expert said Thursday, as the army probed what caused the fiery wreck and its fatal results.
Eran Ramot, a former fighter pilot and researcher at the Fisher Institute for Air and Strategic Studies, said the asymmetry was currently the leading theory for what caused the wreck, which killed Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov.
However, that alone should not have caused a crash, as planes and pilots routinely fly with this imbalance, Ramot told The Times of Israel over the phone.
The navigator, who sits in the rear seat, ejected from the plane and sustained some light injuries. However, Cohen Nov, the pilot and deputy commander of the squadron, died in the crash.
According to the IDF, both the pilot and navigator ejected from the plane, but questions have been raised as to when exactly Cohen Nov managed to bail out and if he was still alive at the time of ejection.
IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel has ordered an investigation into the incident to be led by a colonel, the army said.
However, unlike in 2013 when an F-16I crashed into the Mediterranean Sea and the remaining F-16I aircraft were temporarily grounded as a safety measure, Eshel did not impose such a measure in this case, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
“There are a million and one ways to investigate crashes. You can check the recordings, speak with the navigator who was in the plane until he ejected. I assume if he bailed out, he knows why he did,” Ramot said.
“There are different techniques and some very advanced pieces of technology to check the plane’s systems,” he said.
Until the investigation is complete, there is little use in speculating on what could have caused the crash, Ramot stressed. It does not appear to have been brought down by enemy fire or any external force, he said.
“But anything is possible,” he said.
“The Russians just sent to Syria an S-300 missile defense system. It can reach Gaza and hit a plane. Who knows?” Ramot said, speaking hyperbolically.
However, the former test pilot and current head of the Fisher Institute’s aviation research department offered some explanation of how asymmetry and the F-16I’s ejection system could have led to Cohen Nov’s death.
“When a plane goes on an operational sortie it carries ordnance on its wings. During the operational activity, it apparently released ordnance from one wing — you don’t release from both at once, you release one after another — and was left with ordnance on the other,” Ramot said.
“From there it returned to land. I don’t know why [it didn’t drop the ordnance from the second wing], maybe it didn’t need to or there was some issue with its release,” he said.
Flying with extra weight on one wing is not typically a problem as aircraft are generally capable of compensating for the asymmetry by themselves and pilots are also taught how to fly in such a scenario manually.
During landing that asymmetry can be somewhat more problematic, as the plane flies at a lower speed and thus has less air pushing it up, Ramot said.
However, if the plane or the pilot experiences difficulty while flying or it looks like there will be a problem landing with that asymmetry, the solution is fairly simple — dropping the bomb, usually over a body of water, Ramot said.
That did not happen in this case, though it does appear that Cohen Nov and the navigator experienced difficulties in landing, as according to an Army Radio report they made a pass over the airfield before coming in for the landing.
It was during that second landing attempt that the crash occurred.
One of the other as yet unanswered questions in the incident is how the navigator ejected with light injuries, while Cohen Nov did not survive.
The F-16I and F-16B variants are what’s known as two-seat aircraft, which are flown by both a pilot and a navigator, unlike the F-16A and F-16C, which are flown by one person.
All of these jets come equipped with a handle which, when pulled, blows off the plane’s canopy, fires the crew members out in ejector seats and releases their parachutes to bring them down safely.
However, in two-seater aircraft there are two options for ejecting from the plane: either both are automatically ejected — first the navigator and then “a few seconds later” the pilot — or the navigator can eject on his own, Ramot said.
It is not yet clear which of those two scenarios occurred in this case, if both tried to eject from the plane, but because of the order, the navigator made it out safely, while the pilot did not, or if only the navigator ejected, while the pilot attempted to land the plane by himself, before ultimately trying to bail out.
Cohen Nov, 34, was described as a capable and distinguished pilot, as evidenced by the fact that he was recently named deputy commander of the Atalef, or Bat, squadron.
He leaves behind a pregnant wife and one daughter, as well as two sisters and his parents.
His funeral will be held on Friday at 11 a.m. in Mazor, a small community outside Petah Tikva.