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Jet Fighter Glides For 25 Miles Over Populated Area To Safe Landing

June 5, 1987

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Two Air Force pilots guided a crippled F-16 fighter to a safe landing at Tampa International Airport after a bird disabled the sophisticated jet, forcing it to glide the last 25 miles, military officials said.

A bird was sucked into the engine of the $14 million Fighting Falcon as the jet was being flown back to MacDill Air Force Base following a training mission Thursday.

The remains of the bird were still embedded in the engine when the jet landed.

The bird strike occurred 65 miles north of the base in Sumter County. The pilot and student pilot took the aircraft from 3,000 feet to a gliding height of 16,000 feet before the engine quit 25 miles from Tampa, Air Force officials said.

″They were in danger,″ said Capt. Dian Lawhon, a public affairs officer at MacDill. ″It took real skill. They basically had to glide that airplane back down.″

The instructor pilot, Maj. Billy Gracy, said he stopped being frightened ″when I got out of the airplane and walked away from it.″

Gracy, 38, and his student, Lt. Col. Richard Couch, 40, who is stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, coasted to an unscheduled landing on a runway at Tampa International, a civilian airport in northwest Tampa about 10 miles from the base, officials said.

An air force officer who declined to identify himself said the powerless plane posed no danger to people on the ground in the Tampa Bay area because the jet managed to climb high enough to a safe gliding distance before the engine failed.

″They weren’t going to come back here unless they could make it safely,″ he said. Otherwise, he said, the pilots would have turned toward the Gulf of Mexico, ejected themselves and let the jet crash into the water.

When the bird hit, Gracy was aware the engine was affected and immediately gained altitude to give himself time to assess the problem. He turned back toward MacDill.

Over a wooded area north of Tampa, he jettisoned the jet’s two empty 8- foot-long fuel tanks for better control of the plane, Ms. Lawhon said. He also activated an emergency power system to keep the plane’s electronic and hydraulic controls operable.

Ms. Lawhon said a runway at Tampa International, which was closer, was temporarily closed so the 85-foot-long jet could land.

Federal aviation officials reported no disruption of traffic at the airport.

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