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Family of pilot, a former La Jolla student killed in training crash, pushes Air Force for changes

Air Force 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie beside a T-34C Talon jet.
(Courtesy)

2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, who attended high school at La Jolla Country Day, died in November while landing a T-38 training jet at an Oklahoma Air Force base.

The San Diego family of an Air Force officer killed during pilot training is asking the Air Force to change how it trains pilots.

It is having some success. The Air Force in May announced one major change in training.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, and an instructor pilot, Lt. Col. John Kincade, 47, died Nov. 21 while trying to land a T-38C jet in tandem with a second plane at Vance Air Force Base near Oklahoma City.

The Air Force’s investigation report said Wilkie and Kincade’s jet bounced on the runway and veered to the right. Kincade pulled up to try to clear the top of the other plane, according to the investigation, but the jet’s landing gear clipped the second plane, causing the jet to flip over and crash into the ground.

Both men were killed instantly, the Air Force said.

The crash raised questions for Wilkie’s parents: How old was the jet he was flying? Was the formation landing he was attempting outdated?

Don and Carlene Wilkie sought answers. It would take months — and help from U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego — before the family received some answers.

Pilots from the Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma fly T-38C Talons on July 26, 2019.
Pilots from the 25th Flying Training Squadron and the 5th Flying Training Squadron fly T-38C Talons on July 26 over Oklahoma.
(Senior Airman Taylor Crul / Air Force)

A future pilot

Travis Wilkie was born and raised in San Diego. He grew up in Point Loma with his sister, Cameron, who is three years younger. He attended private schools in San Diego — Warren-Walker through eighth grade, then high school at St. Augustine and La Jolla Country Day School.

His parents say Wilkie was a driven child.

“Every parent can say their kid is exceptional,” Carlene Wilkie said. “The thing that comes to mind about Travis is he was born with bright blue eyes and was so energetic — you could tell from an early age nothing was going to stop this kid.”

He was a devout Catholic who pushed himself academically and athletically, she said. He played baseball for his high school teams and for the San Diego Show, a local club team.

“He was extremely religious, spiritual and sincere,” she said. “He didn’t have an enemy and wasn’t confrontational. He didn’t party and didn’t have a girlfriend in high school — he followed all the rules.”

It was baseball that led Wilkie to the Air Force Academy, Don Wilkie said. Although his son had an offer from Pepperdine University, the academy won out.

“He liked the idea of the adventure,” Don Wilkie said.

Travis Wilkie, then a sophomore, plays against San Diego State University at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Travis Wilkie, then a sophomore, goes after a wild throw at home as the Air Force Academy hosted San Diego State University in Colorado Springs, Colo., in March 2016.
(Michael Kaplan / Air Force)

Travis Wilkie started as catcher for every game his freshman season at the academy and played in 119 games over three seasons, according to goairforcefalcons.com. He took junior year off from baseball, his father said.

While at the Air Force Academy, Wilkie came to appreciate San Diego more. When the team traveled to play San Diego State University — which plays in the same conference as the academy — Wilkie would take teammates home to show off his hometown.

“He’d bring all his baseball buddies over and we would host them on Shelter Island,” Don Wilkie said. Bonfires and trips to Miguel’s Cocina were also standard, he said.

Travis Wilkie, in a 2018 memo, wrote that he was proud to represent the Air Force Academy playing baseball.

“Being given the opportunity to wear ‘Air Force’ across my chest and salute the flag as I competed against various other collegiate baseball programs for four years instilled in me a great deal of pride,” he wrote.

Flying with the baseball team on Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft got Wilkie interested in flying.

“Coming into [Naval Air Station North Island] he asked to be in the cockpit,” Don Wilkie said. “He witnessed a dramatic landing as the plane tried to keep out of domestic airspace.”

Wilkie earned his first pilot’s license flying a Cessna in South Carolina between his sophomore and junior years.

After graduating in 2018, he went on to Vance Air Force Base, where he flew T-6 trainers before being selected for the fighter pilot pipeline — and the T-38C training jet.

By then he had met fellow cadet Peyton Cottingham. The couple, both student pilots, went on to train at Vance.

They married Oct. 15 — 37 days before Wilkie’s fatal crash.

“They were deeply in love and perfect for each other,” Carlene Wilkie said. “She was his one true love.”

Peyton Wilkie, through a family friend, declined to comment. She is on active duty.

A ‘grossly and unjustly incomplete’ investigation

When Don Wilkie traveled to Oklahoma to recover his son’s body, he learned from Air Force officials that the service was replacing the T-38C jets, which were known to be difficult to control at low speeds.

He also found out that the formation landing his son and instructor were executing was no longer practiced in the Air Force outside of training, he said.

It took almost six months for the Air Force to release to the family its investigation into Wilkie’s crash. During that time, the family had reached out to Peters for help compelling the Air Force to stop requiring student pilots to execute the formation landing that resulted in Wilkie’s death.

In a January letter to Lt. Gen. Marshall Webb, commander of the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, Peters called on the Air Force to immediately ground all T-38 jets, noting there had been four other crashes in the two years before Wilkie’s fatal crash.

Peters said the jet’s “troubling pattern” of failures should push the Air Force to expedite replacing it.

The T-38s were designed in the 1950s and have been in service almost 60 years.

Their replacement, the T-7 Red Hawk, is still in development. The first ones are scheduled for delivery in 2023, and they’ll be phased in over the next decade, according to a Boeing contract.

Webb responded to Peters in a February letter but did not commit to grounding the T-38s or to changing the formation landing requirement in training.

In the meantime, the Wilkie family waited for the Air Force to complete its investigation.

On April 24, Webb traveled to San Diego to deliver the investigation report to the family. The report blamed the crash on mistakes by Wilkie and Kincade.

The investigation said that while landing their T-38C to the left and behind another jet, the student made errors and the instructor intervened too late.

It said the student pilot approached the runway 10 feet too far to the left and, after the plane touched down, he prematurely attempted an aerodynamic braking maneuver, which caused the plane to become airborne again.

Then, the report says, Wilkie applied the right rudder to correct for his plane being too far left — a maneuver that led to the jet again touching down and skidding toward the second aircraft.

That’s when Kincade took over, the Air Force said, pulling back on the stick in an attempt to fly over the second plane. However, his jet’s landing gear struck the left wing of the second trainer and the jet flipped over and crashed.

The Wilkie family released a statement May 1 calling the investigation “grossly and unjustly incomplete” because it failed to mention the inherent danger of formation landings.

“The report’s conclusions omit a significant, if not the primary, accident cause, which is side-by-side formation landing in a 58-year-old jet despite the report’s backup documentation shining a bright light on this dangerous and wholly unnecessary maneuver,” the family said.

Carlene Wilkie later said of the Air Force report: “It was written so we can’t understand it.”

The Wilkie family — Don, Travis, Carlene and Cameron — in an undated photo.
(Courtesy)

Don Wilkie said he spent a week carefully reading the report and was surprised to learn that the night before the crash, Kincade and two of his superior officers had a conversation about the need to eliminate formation landings from training.

His son, Wilkie said, had already completed the two formation landings required to graduate, so he doesn’t understand why they attempted another one that day.

“I don’t know whether Kincade was trying to build my son’s confidence by having him do another difficult procedure,” Don Wilkie said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know.”

Less than two weeks after the investigation report was released, the Air Force announced that formation landings had been suspended for students as of March 5.

However, according to the Wilkies, Webb told them during his April 24 visit that the landings had always been part of training and would remain so.

“They came to my house April 24 and didn’t even know whether the formation landings had ever stopped,” Don Wilkie said. “They didn’t put it in the report.”

In a statement, Jennifer Gonzalez, an Air Force Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman, declined to comment on the Wilkies’ account of the conversation.

“Obviously, we are not in a position to comment on whether private conversations occurred between the Wilkies and other parties,” Gonzalez wrote in an email.

“We accelerated our review of the requirement for formation landings following the Vance Air Force Base accident. Following the Air Force-wide review, we adjusted our syllabi to reflect the requirements of our fifth-generation Air Force and advances in avionics and suspended formation landing training March 5, 2020.”

The loss of their son has instilled in Travis Wilkie’s parents a resolve to see the T-38 replaced by the Air Force and to see the service better inform families about the risks pilots take.

A scholarship fund has been established in Wilkie’s name at Warren-Walker School. ◆