Losses and Aviation Safety

That time a Swiss Air Force F-5 Pilot was hit in his thigh by a lightning that penetrated his Tiger cockpit

“Just as the first words from the radar operator came in “ten miles long final, gear down”, I felt a heavy blow, as though a hammer hit my left thigh,” Urs Ramel, Swiss Air Force F-5 Pilot.

The F-5 was developed by Northrop for export through the Military Assistance Program (MAP) in February 1965. This aircraft was initially offered as a candidate for a U.S. lightweight fighter, but became extremely popular as an export finding its niche in the overseas market. In December 1970, Northrop began development and production on the F-5A-21, an aircraft design that emphasized maneuverability rather than high speed and was officially reclassified as the F-5E.

The aircraft was and still is extensively used by the Swiss Air Force which currently flies a total of 22 F-5E and four F-5F aircraft, down from a peak of 98 and 12 in 1981. The aircraft were purchased by Switzerland because of their excellent performance, suitability for the unique Swiss Air Force mission, and their relatively low maintenance cost per flight hour.

The Tiger is exceptionally sturdy aircraft too as Urs Ramel, F-5 pilot with Swiss Air Force explains in Peter Lewis book Swiss Tiger Parallel Flight:

“Having flown two morning missions during a training session from Dübendorf, I knew that storm-like precipitation and strong turbulence was embedded in an 8’000 meter cloud formation.

“During a lunchtime coffee break, a discussion began on how a lightning strike had penetrated a Tiger’s cockpit and hit the pilot in his thigh just before midday. I had been warned… After an interception mission “on top” at 30’000 feet, we followed a GCA approach in formation through varying cloud densities. While reducing speed before the talk down, we hit strong turbulence and very heavy rain.

“I could hardly make out the outline of my wingman in my mirrors. Just as the first words from the radar operator came in “ten miles long final, gear down”, I felt a heavy blow, as though a hammer hit my left thigh. For a microsecond, I saw a pencil-like vertical streak of lightning in front of me in the cockpit. “Fly the airplane”, I told myself scared, and in the following half a minute it took all my concentration to focus on the instruments to keep within limits. A quick glance around the cockpit confirmed that everything was seemingly OK and when I looked over to my wingman, I was relieved to see that he was still glued to my wingtip as he should be and was nodding his head.

“I reported my status to the operator and we continued the approach without any further issues for a successful landing. My wingman registered his own lightning strike as a hard.. muffled hit, with an impact just above his left eye. Both airplanes had multiple lightning entry and exit points, with rivets that looked like they’d been soldered.

“Right after the flight we were taken to the Air Force Medical Center (FAI) for examination. We both had painful five Franc coin-sized bruises: my wingman’s on his forehead, mine on my thigh. Our bruises may have disappeared within an hour, but that day – March 21, 1986 -has left a mark in both of our memories forever.”

Photo credit: Peng Chen and Myself (Adrian Pingstone) via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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