Capt. George Bryan Houghton, a US Air Force F-16 pilot, died on June 22 because he lost track of his altitude. He was practicing high-angle-strafing at night using night vision goggles. Houghton had only recently graduated to such operations in the F-16. If he realized that he began his dive toward the target 2,000ft below the minimum safe altitude, his actions didn't show it. A laser spot illuminating the target consumed Houghton's focus. He didn't respond to alerts from three different cockpit instruments and a ground controller -- all telling him to "pull up".
The accident investigation report released on Monday concluded that Houghton made no attempt to eject or pull up before crashing. His F-16 struck ground 50ft in front of his target, an angle suggesting Houghton believed it was still 1,000ft below.
I reported two months ago that the US Air Force had decided against funding a readily available technology that could prevent such an accident. I based my reporting on an official response to my question by Air Combat Command. I have recently learned that the ACC's response was wrong. The organization, in fact, has decided to upgrade the F-16, F-22 and F-35 -- all Lockheed Martin-designed, fly-by-wire fighters -- with the auto-ground collision avoidance system (Auto-GCAS).
The USAF and NASA first demonstrated Auto-GCAS in 1998. At that time, the Skunk Works-built software system had a few bugs, but still proved the idea was feasible, says Mark "Tex" Wilkins, a senior aviation safety analyst for the defense safety oversight council.
Auto-GCAS track's the aircraft's position, speed and altitude against a digital terrain map of the Earth. It intervenes when the pilot becomes disoriented, or suffers a G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC). If the system calculates the aircraft is within 1.5sec of approaching a point of no return, it takes control and levels the aircraft, as you can see in the HUD video below of an Auto-GCAS test flight.
Wilkins says that analysis shows Auto-GCAS would have prevented 16 fighter crashes since 2000, when the system was originally declared a "mature" technology by the Air Force Research Laboratory. It would have saved Houghton life's, as well as the life of David Cooley, a Lockheed Martin F-22 test pilot. Cooley lost focus four 4sec during a high-speed manoeuvre, but regained control only to find himself in an unrecoverable position -- nose-low at Mach 1.6 and diving through 14,000ft.
The USAF will start equipping F-16s with Auto-GCAS in the 6.2 block of the operational fight program, which is scheduled to deploy after 2012. The system is also now part of the 3.2 software block for the F-22 operational flight program, now deploying in 2016, Wilkins says.