For the Birds Radio Program: F-16 Crash, Part II

Original Air Date: Oct. 23, 1992

Today Laura talks about her little part in helping the Air National Guard investigate the crash of an F-16 fighter jet. Date verified.

Audio missing


I get a lot of phone calls from perfect strangers. People call me very day with questions about birds. So I wasn’t too surprised when a man called me on October 4 wondering if I could identify some feathers. I was surprised when he identified himself as Bill Lucido, an aviation investigator looking into the crash of the Air National Guard’s F-16 in Duluth back on September 18. He asked if he could bring the feathers over for me to identify. Bill was from Fresno, California, and brought along another investigator named Phil from Springfield, Illinois.

Phil pulled out a plastic bag and gave me the mangled remnant of a wing. The feathers were dull brown primaries without markings. By their small size and glossy, duck-like appearance, I could tell they came from a medium-sized shorebird, a bird that needs water-proofed feathers. From the fact that the feathers were very pointed and that the outer primaries were much longer than the inner ones, I could tell that the bird was a long-distance migrant. There were a few shorebirds that fit the bill–the ones I thought of right away were the Solitary Sandpiper and the Golden Plover. I didn’t have any references that compared the feather measurements of the two birds, and anyway, for the military to be absolutely certain, they already knew they’d have to send the feathers to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington for final verification, but at least now they had some idea what kind of bird they were dealing with. I was happy to have had the opportunity to help them, and thrilled to have actually held such unique feathers in my hand.

An hour or two later, Bill Lucido called back. He had uncovered some whole carcasses of birds implicated in the crash and wondered if I could identify them from photographs. He came back with perfect black-and-white glossies of two dead Golden Plovers. I was pleased not only to help them again, but also to know that I hadn’t screwed up my identification of the feathers.

Golden Plovers aren’t all that big. They weigh between 4 and 6 ounces, and their wingspan measures about 20 inches. A single bird could probably have gone through the single engine of the F-16 without too much problem, at least not to the plane. But apparently the jet hit a whole flock of them.

Golden Plovers are true long-distance migrants, clocking as many miles each year as many Air Force pilots. They breed in northernmost Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, and winter down in South America. During fall, few of them migrate through the inland United States. Most fly southeast to the coast of Labrador and Nova Scotia and then fly directly over the ocean all the way to South America. F-16s cost $27 million. All the money in the world could not create a Golden Plover.

Anyway, the next week Bill Lucido called again. The Smithsonian had verified that the feathers came from a Golden Plover, and Bill noted that this was the first time on record that a Golden Plover had ever been implicated in a plane crash in the inland United States or Canada. He put me on a conference call with an Air Force biologist who keeps track of bird migration; they needed information about Duluth’s unique migration patterns.

And that about wraps up my involvement in the investigation of the F-16 crash. I was glad I had the opportunity to serve my country, even in such a small way. For a stay-at-home mommy birdwatcher like me, it seemed like pretty big potatoes.