The pilot of a Dutch F-16 reportedly managed to fly into his own trail of cannon fire in January, causing serious damage to the aircraft and forcing him to execute an emergency landing.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is, in many ways, the precursor to America’s new crown jewel, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Like the F-35, the F-16 was purpose-built to serve in a variety of air combat roles, from air-to-air combat to close air support for ground troops in the fight. One of the weapons that makes the F-16 so effective in both capacities is its on-board M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun. It’s capable of unleashing as much as 6,600 rounds per minute at enemy targets. For those doing the math, that’s around 110 rounds per second with the weapon set to its highest rate of fire. The aircraft carried 511 rounds, or enough to sustain that rate of fire for about five seconds.
According to reports in Dutch state media, the Royal Netherlands Air Force pilot fired the aircraft’s on-board cannon before accelerating in the same direction as the cannon fire. At least one of the rounds then impacted the side of the aircraft, sending debris or shrapnel into the engine’s intake and causing serious damage. The pilot was able to maintain control of the aircraft and conduct an emergency landing.
“This is a serious incident,” Wim Bagerbos, inspector general at the Netherlands Department of Defense, told Dutch media. “We therefore want to fully investigate what happened and how we would be able to avoid this in the future.”
As unlikely as this scenario truly seems, it isn’t completely unheard of. A pilot named Thomas W. Attridge Jr. made history in 1956 when he became the first pilot to manage to shoot himself down with an on-board cannon. While flying at approximately 20,000 feet, Attridge executed a dive while firing the 20mm rotary cannon on his F11F-1 Tiger. He expended the aircraft’s ammunition as he continued the dive to 7,000 feet, where he believed he had suffered a bird strike (a bird flying into the jet’s inlet).
The aircraft crashed and Attridge survived with serious injuries. A subsequent investigation would show that the rounds experienced sufficient drag to slow their velocity enough for Attridge’s F11F-1 Tiger to catch up with them as it increased its velocity throughout the dive. When the aircraft and 20mm rounds reunited in midair, it caused sufficient damage to the aircraft’s engines to cause the crash.