The 1982 Diamond Crash was the worst operational accident to befall the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Team involving show aircraft. Four Northrop T-38 Talon jets crashed during operational training on 18 January 1982, killing all four pilots.
The Thunderbirds were practicing at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada (now Creech Air Force Base) for a performance at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. Four T-38As, Numbers 1–4, comprising the basic diamond formation, hit the desert floor almost simultaneously on Range 65, now referred to as "The Gathering of Eagles Range". The pilots were practicing the four-plane line abreast loop, in which the aircraft climb in side-by-side formation several thousand feet, pull over in a slow, inside loop, and descend at more than 400 mph. The planes were meant to level off at about 100 feet (30 m); Instead, the formation struck the ground at high speed.
The four pilots died instantly: Major Norm Lowry, III, leader, 37, of Radford, Virginia; Captain Willie Mays, left wing, 31, of Ripley, Tennessee; Captain Joseph "Pete" Peterson, right wing, 32, of Tuskegee, Alabama; and Captain Mark E. Melancon, slot, 31, of Dallas, Texas.
Col. Mike Wallace, of the Public Information Office at nearby Nellis AFB, home of the demonstration team, said that Major General Gerald D. Larson, the head of an Air Force investigation board, arrived at Nellis from New Hampshire at 10 p.m. that night. "Larson and a team of 10 to 15 experts are expected to spend three weeks studying the wreckage of the four T-38s – the worst [training] crash in the 28-year history of the Air Force aerial demonstration team. The jets crashed almost simultaneously with what near-by Indian Springs residents described as an earthquake-like explosion that looked like a napalm bomb. Wreckage was strewn across a 1-square-mile area of the desert 60 miles north of Las Vegas."
Initial speculation was that the accident might have been due to pilot error, that the leader might have misjudged his altitude or speed and the other three pilots repeated the error. However, the Air Force concluded that the crash was due to a jammed stabilizer on the lead jet. The other pilots, in accordance with their training, did not break formation.
"At the speed they were going when they came out of the loop, I just thought, "That's the end of that for them fellows,'" said W. G. Wood of Indian Springs, who witnessed the crash as he drove along U.S. 95. "It happened so fast I couldn't tell you if one hit sooner. It looked like all of them hit at the same time."
Construction worker George LaPointe watched the jets disappear behind tree tops, "They didn't come back up," he said. "They were going full tilt, really screaming, and at the time I thought they were too low."
The airframes involved were all T-38A-75-NO Talons, serial numbers 68-8156, -8175, -8176 and -8184.
Technical Sergeant Alfred R. King filmed the accident from the ground. His footage helped to determine the cause for the AFR 127-4(Air Force Regulation covering "Investigating and Reporting US Air Force Mishaps") accident investigation. On 26 January 1982, Congress passed Resolution 248, stating that "The Congress hereby affirms its strong support for continuation of the Thunderbirds program." Nonetheless, the 1982 season was cancelled for the Thunderbirds while they rebuilt the team. Former demonstration unit members still on active duty were recalled to help rebuild the squadron.
A five-page report of the mishap was published by Aviation Week & Space Technology in their issue dated 17 May 1982.
The Thunderbirds next flew a public demonstration in early 1983, more than 18 months after their last public air show.
On 2 April 1984, at the direction of Gen. Wilbur Creech, Commanding General, USAF Tactical Air Command, all copies of the crash videotape were destroyed, with Creech himself erasing the final crash segment of the master tape. At the time of the destruction, the families of the pilots and NBC had already demanded access to the tapes as part of a suit against Northrop and a FOIA request, respectively. Creech did not seek JAG guidance prior to destroying the tapes, and asked personnel who had been involved in reviewing the tapes to leave the room prior to his erasure.
The Thunderbirds switched back to front-line jet fighters after the accident. The Air Force team, like the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, had switched to smaller aircraft after the 1973 oil crisis (the Navy switched from F-4 Phantoms to smaller A-4 Skyhawks). The first F-16A Fighting Falcon in Thunderbird colors arrived at Nellis AFB, Nevada, on 22 June 1982.