May 15 New Jersey Pinelands Fire Blamed on Pilot Error
Warren Grove, NJ
A self-protection flare deployed by a fighter pilot who disregarded instructions and a lack of communication among everyone involved caused the May 15 forest fire that raged across the New Jersey Pine Barrens. That fire, first reported here on NowPublic.com, culminated in the burning of approximately 18,000 acres of pine forest and the destruction of four homes. A total of 37 homes were damaged, five boats, three vehicles, and four trailers were lost in the fire. Miraculously, no fatalities occurred.
An Air Force investigation revealed that on the day of the fire two F-16 fighter jets, from the 177th Fighter Wing, of the New Jersey Air National Guard, based in Atlantic City, NJ, were engaged in combat training at the Warren Grove Bombing Range, where the fire began. The range supervisor stationed on the ground, had been advised earlier in the day, by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, that the fire danger was very high, and that the level would most likely increase to the highest level of danger later in the day.
According to Air Force Major General Emmett Titshaw, in a report issued by the Air Force on June 20, 2007, and released July 26, 2007, the range instructions issued to the pilots before the start of the fire did not contain the current level of fire danger. Those instructions would have included a prohibition of the use of flares below 2,500 feet. Those instructions, however, did prohibit the deployment of flares below 500 feet over the Warren Grove Range.
The range supervisor claims that he never received notification, from the Forest Fire Service, that the fire danger level was raised to its highest level. This notification would have triggered a total prohibition of the use of flares over the range.
Fighter pilots deploy self-protection flares directly from the aircraft, in an effort to divert heat-seeking missiles toward the flare and away from the aircraft. In order to divert the missiles, the flares must burn very hot for a short period.
The flare which is believed to have started the fire was deployed during an unplanned “show of force” maneuver performed by the two F-16’s at the request of the range supervisor, apparently for the benefit of an unidentified non-range personnel visitors to the range on that day. The “show of force” maneuver is a typical combat tactic employed to intimidate the enemy on the ground and requires low altitude flying. Self-protection flares are deployed because the low altitude increases the aircraft’s vulnerability to missile strikes.
Although the Air Force report indicates that the release of the flare was “pilot error,” the report also indicates that the pilot was aware that he released three to four flares, several under the standard 500-foot restriction. Range personnel extinguished several fires on the range that the flares started, but were unable to control the blaze that eventually burned out of control.
Even after the flares were released, neither the supervising pilot nor personnel on the ground at the range notified the pilot that there were any increased restrictions on flare deployment.
In November of 2004, an F-16 fighter plane while on a nighttime training mission, at the Warren Grove bombing range, strafed a Little Egg Harbor elementary school located four miles from the range. The rounds fired from the aircraft’s 20mm cannon pierced the roof of the school and damaged several student desks inside the building. Thankfully, the strafing occurred at night when there were no students in attendance. The Air Force also attributed the strafing of the school as pilot error.