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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 glided for 25 miles over bays, woods and homes to a safe landing at Tampa International Airport after a bird killed the engine on their $14 million F-16 jet fighter, officials said.

The bird collided with the Fighting Falcon during a routine flight Thursday 65 miles northeast of MacDill Air Force Base, officials said.

The engine died 25 miles north of the base, located on a thumb of land jutting into Tampa Bay south of the city, but the pilot-instructor and his student coasted to the unscheduled landing at Tampa International, the Air Force officials said.

The civilian airport is about 10 miles north of MacDill.

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

″They were in danger,″ said Capt. Dian Lawhon, a public affairs officer at MacDill. ″It was a pretty heroic thing those pilots did to bring that plane back. It took real skill. They basically had to glide that airplane back down.″

Another 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 above 16,000 feet and reach 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.

Gracy, 38, and his student, 40-year-old Lt. Col. Richard Couch, took off from MacDill for a routine training flight. Gracy was in the front seat and Couch, who is stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, was in the rear.

The jet was flying below 3,000 feet ove sparsely populated terrain in Sumter County, northeast of Tampa, when the bird hit, Ms. Lawhon said.

Gracy immediately gained altitude to give himself time to assess the problem, then turned back toward MacDill.

Over a wooded area north of Tampa, he jettisoned the jet’s two exterior fuel tanks. The 8-foot-long tanks, already empty, fell into woodland, Ms. Lawhon said.

Gracy also activated an emergency power system to keep the plane’s electronic and hydraulic controls operable, officials said.

The engine finally quit about 25 miles north of MacDill, when the plane was between 16,000 and 20,000 feet.

Ms. Lawhon said a runway at the closer airport was temporarily closed so the 85-foot-long jet could land. Federal aviation officials said there was no report of disruption of traffic at the airport.

Ms. Lawhon said remains of the bird were still in the engine when the jet landed.

Update hourly