WESTON HILLS JET CRASH ANNIVERSARY: Major Mat Tanis answers our questions
It was an event that stunned South Holland. Just before 3.30pm on October 8, 2014, a United States Air Force fighter jet came down in Weston Hills, extremely fortunately causing no casualties and relatively little damage on the ground.
A training exercise went horribly wrong and Major Matt Tanis – who was single-crewed in the £24million F15-D aircraft – managed to eject to safety at just under 6,000 feet. The plane was still spiralling out of control as he lost sight of it in cloud cover.
Now, five years on, the pilot has spoken publicly about the shocking event for the first time and other significant people have been recalling that Wednesday afternoon and the ensuing days and months.
What are your memories of that particular exercise?
I remember everything about that last manoeuvre in very good detail. The fight was the third and final (obviously) fight of the day. It was a 3,000 ft defensive Basic Fighter Manoeuvring (BFM) set up. I began in front of the offender who was 3,000ft behind me and we began manoeuvring. After a few seconds of manoeuvring, the momentum of the aircraft began an accelerated flat-erect spin.
What were your thoughts when you first realised something was wrong?
My first thoughts and actually my mindset for the last 40 seconds of that aircraft’s lifespan was one of disbelief and denial. Initially I was thrown forward fairly aggressively into the front of the cockpit radio control panel and the canopy, temporarily pinned due to the forces of gravity acting against me.
I was able to push myself back into my seat, and I kept thinking: “C’mon already, stop spinning”.
Whereas before this incident I always envisioned an accelerated spin to be very disorienting and ‘crazy’, the actual event was relatively controlled and sustained. I think my brain sped up to cope, but I had time to apply the appropriate anti-spin control inputs and double, even triple-check I had all the controls in the correct spots.
How long was it before you had to take the decision to eject?
If you asked me in the days following the accident, I would have told you I was spinning for about 8-10 seconds. After seeing the recording of the event once it was recovered from the crash site, I now know I was spinning for just under 40 seconds. During that timeframe while attempting to recover the aircraft the aircraft, my flight lead - who is to this day my hero, good friend, and recipient of many drinks paid for by yours truly - was calling out my altitude every one thousand feet of descent. Our uncontrolled ejection altitude is 6,000ft above the ground, and so when my flight lead called “7,000”, I knew the anti-spin controls were doing nothing and I knew I was a few seconds from ejection. That was my moment, and that’s when I made the decision to eject
At what altitude were you at that point?
Just below 6000ft - somewhere around 5,780ft.
Was there anything you were able to do to influence where the plane came down?
No, not at all. I wish I could say I steered the aircraft to an open field, but besides attempting to always fly over unpopulated areas as a general rule of flying high-performance aircraft, I had no influence on the aircraft post-spin. I thank God daily the aircraft landed where it did.
Is it right your last words to the other pilot were "I'm out of here dude"?
No! That was a misquote from someone who was in the backseat of my flight lead’s aircraft who couldn’t remember exactly what I said and decided to add “dude” to paint me as your stereo-typical American cowboy. My words transmitted over the radio just prior to pulling the ejection handles were “I’m getting out”.
Did you see it crash while you were parachuting down? What were your thoughts and emotions when you saw where it had crashed?
No I didn’t. Immediately after ejecting, my parachute was twisted and forced my face to look down. I saw my mighty Eagle-jet spinning beneath my feet, and silhouetted behind the aircraft were a few houses. That was the worst moment of the entire event, and for the next 5-10 minutes I was scared to death I had just dropped an aircraft on top of someone. I tried to keep track of the aircraft, but it disappeared through some scattered clouds and I then focused on getting a fully functioning parachute and landing site.
After being picked up in a helicopter, the pilot (who was a neighbour and friend of mine and another one of my heroes) took me over the crash site and I saw my jet burning in a field. It was surreal, and an image that will be implanted on my mind for the rest of my life.
What do you recall about where you landed and how you were approached by Brian Jex and his two work colleagues?
I never knew any of their names, but I do remember them meeting me at my landing site almost immediately. I remember being in disbelief someone could get into the middle of the field so quickly! I remember lying on the ground in somewhat of a fetal position as the men approached me. They got within a few feet and I asked them to look me over for any blood or bones sticking out.
My shin hurt, my neck hurt, and my left hand hurt and was fairly bloody, but I knew adrenaline was high and didn’t want to stand up with a significant injury. The men patted me down, and helped me up.
I remember still being very angry and scared I had dropped my aircraft on the town, and I asked Brian (or one of the other men) if my aircraft had hit anything. I still have no idea how they knew so quickly, but they assured me it had landed in a field, and they even knew the canopy had landed in another empty field, injuring no one. To date, that was one of the single most relieving assurances I had even heard, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I knew the next several months were going to be difficult, but I knew right then at least no one was hurt.
What were your first actions?
Once I stood up, one of the guys offered me their phone. I actually tried to call my wife who was back in the States preparing for one of our best friend’s weddings, but I failed to remember all the digits in her British phone number, so could not get through. She reminds me almost daily of this transgression. I did - for whatever reason - remember my Squadron Operation Desk’s number, and was able to get through and let them know I was OK. Those words were transferred to my flight lead who had just landed back at Lakenheath without knowledge of my survival.
How much experience had you had in the F-15D?
I had been flying the F-15C/D models for about 17 months and I had about 200 hours of flight time in that aircraft. We fly the F-15C and F-15D interchangeably, as they are almost identical in terms of handling and performance. I had probably flown a D-model aircraft 50 times previously without incident.
Have you been to Weston Hills Primary School since the crash?
A few of my good friends from my squadron went to the school, but I have yet to make the trip. If I get back to England, I will absolutely visit and namely walk around the school to give every one of the administrators and teachers a big hug of appreciation. Instead of focusing on the potential danger of the event, they focused their and their students’ energies on celebrating my survival, and I am still extremely appreciative of that gesture. I received upwards of 100 cards from kids and teachers, and have all of them at my house, and a few of my favourites now framed, hanging on my walls. With the accident so recent and the investigation ongoing, I felt it was too early following the crash to visit. I’m not joking when I say my wife and I have mentioned moving to the area just so our four-year old daughter could go to that school.
Are you still a pilot in a similar plane? How did it feel getting back into a cockpit for the first time after the crash?
I am still flying the same plane almost every day, about to reach 1,000 hours of flight time. I am currently an instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, I am now the chief of Advanced Handling Characteristics (AHC), responsible for teaching academics and analysis on all advanced aerodynamics for the F-15.
I have spent hours upon hours studying what happened to me that day, and now have the opportunity to converse regularly with some of the chief engineers for Boeing who designed and know everything about the aircraft. I now get to use my experience to teach and hopefully help avoid similar crashes in the future.
In terms of getting back into flying, it was a mixed bag of emotions. I wanted to get back to it right away, and was very anxious to get back in the air to prove to myself I had the confidence to continue flying fighters. A lot of guys told me (and still tell me) that since I’ve already ejected, there’s almost no way (statistically) I’ll be caught in that spot again. To be honest, when I sat in that cockpit again, none of their reassurances really mattered - I didn’t feel like I was immune to another ejection. I think that thought has made me fly more intentionally, and to be honest has enabled me to be a better pilot and instructor.
What are your reflections now on that day? Does it still affect you emotionally or physically?
I have a lot of reflections from that day, and I think it definitely affects me emotionally and physically. This may seem dramatic, but October 8, 2014 was an extremely defining day for me and my family. My wife Katie and I decided we better get a move on and have some kids, and a little over a year later we had our daughter Jules Elise. Five years later, Katie is now eight months pregnant with baby girl number two!
Professionally, I learned a fighter squadron is an absolute band of brothers, and many of those guys in my squadron at the time are some of my best friends who I still get to work with daily.
As Katie was out of town that day, I had ten guys waiting for me at my apartment in Cambridge to support me. Some of that support was in the way of a good bottle of Lagavulin Scotch (my favourite) and every anniversary I take part in a similar ‘tradition’. I also learned what to do if I’m ever in charge of a squadron that loses an aircraft. My commander, then Lt Col Stratton (now old, crusty Colonel Stratton) met me at the helicopter when it brought me back to Lakenheath, and of all the things to say or check on or account for, he simply walked up and give me a huge hug. And that’s what I’m going to do if I’m ever in a similar spot - give the guy/girl a big hug and say nothing.
Probably my biggest takeaway and subsequent reflection from 8 October was how happy I was with the ’system’ of the US Air Force. Something I think about often is the fact that things could have been a lot worse that day. For months my mind would play the ‘what-if’ game and analyse a lot of potentially terribly circumstances that could have materialised - but the fact is they didn’t. All things considered, a lot of things went really well that day.
The maintainers of my aircraft did everything correct, the airmen who pack parachutes and maintain my equipment did everything correct, and the guys/girls who install the ejection seat in my aircraft did everything correct. When I pulled the handles, they and their actions saved my life on that day, and that concept is not lost on me.
I still spend a lot of time thanking the people who maintain my equipment and have even travelled to the factory where they make the ACES 2 ejection seat. I walked the floor with my family and watched them assemble those life-saving seats, and yet again gave out a lot of hugs.
One additional cool coincidence from that day that took a few years to happen is that my Crew Chief from 8 October 2014 is still a crew chief. In fact, when I relocated in my current job in Las Vegas and got to see my name painted on the side of an F-15, his name was right below mine as he is now my assigned Dedicated Crew Chief (DCC). No one else knew the circumstances and it was not on purpose, but here we are five years later working together daily, and I still trust him with my life and he still trusts me with his aircraft.