Maj. Gen. Robert Steel, then-comandant of the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C., and his son, 1st Lt. James Steel, then a 63rd Fighter Squadron student pilot, talk in this file photo. James Steel was killed in Afghanistan in April. (Staff Sgt. Ian Dean / file)
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NORFOLK, VA. — An Air Force investigative report says an F-16C pilot died in Afghanistan this April when his fighter jet crashed into a steep mountain that he couldn’t see while he was returning to base.
The report released by Air Combat Command officials at Langley Air Force Base, Va., says 29-year-old Capt. James Michael Steel crashed April 3 about 12 miles outside Bagram Air Field. When the accident occurred, Steel was in one of two planes returning from a nighttime combat mission supporting ground forces.
The report says Steel flew into a mountainous area obscured by poor weather conditions and that he did not attempt to eject before slamming into the mountain. The report says Steel was flying below the minimum safe altitude at the time of the crash.
The aircraft gave several low-altitude warnings before impact, but Steel didn’t take timely corrective action, according to the report. The first warning occurred 23 seconds before impact.
The aircraft’s Predictive Ground Collision Avoidance system told Steel to pull up four seconds before the crash when it sensed low altitude, but its predictive feature that would’ve warned Steel about the mountain wasn’t working because the terrain Steel was flying in wasn’t in a digital database.
Before the crash, Steel had received permission to rely on visual cues to land his plane rather than instruments. The Accident Investigation Board said that relying on sight rather than instruments in the cloud cover Steel was flying through was a mistake.
The report says by the time Steel’s wingman, who was flying a couple of miles behind him, realized that Steel wasn’t relying on his instruments, he was unable to reach him because they were on different radio channels.
Steel was from Tampa, Fla., and was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. at the time of the accident. Steel’s squadron had spent the first five months of their deployment flying out of Kandahar Air Field, which is in flatter terrain than Bagram and typically has clear weather in the area. Bagram Air Field is in high, mountainous terrain and tends to have worse weather conditions more frequently than Kandahar Air Field. Steel’s squadron had moved to Bagram only five days before the accident, and Steel had flown only one sortie from Bagram before the accident. The report says Steel may have reverted to flight behaviors he learned at Kandahar when he chose to land by sight.
The report says he had more than 1,000 hours of flying time in his career, and he had flown 85 sorties in the past 90 days at the time of the crash. Of those, Steel was the lead pilot in 31 sorties, just as he was the day he died.
“(Steel) was an outstanding young officer and well-respected fighter pilot. He had many friends in the squadron and was enthusiastic about flying the F-16,” the report says.
Nobody else was hurt in the crash, and the loss of the F-16C Fighting Falcon was valued at nearly $31 million.