Auto-GCAS technology lives for F-22, F-16 and F-35

Photo: NASA

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.

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9 Responses to Auto-GCAS technology lives for F-22, F-16 and F-35

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    Analyst: U.S. should slash its F-35 purchase plan
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    NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — A Washington, D.C., think tank is recommending the U.S. cut its planned procurement of F-35A jet fighters by half, saying it is ill suited for the kind of security threats the nation faces. “The F-35 Lightning II — by far the Service’s most expensive modernization effort — represents a classic “middle” capability that lacks critical performance characteristics (e.g., range) needed to meet high-end challenges, while it is over-specified and overpriced for low-end challenges,” said Thomas Ehrhard, an analyst with the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan research institute. Ehrhard recommended the government cut its projected fleet size of the stealthy aircraft by more than half from 1,763, and end the program in 2020 rather than 2034. That would free up needed resources for fighting insurgencies and terrorism, Ehrhard said. The F-35 is being built by Lockheed Martin

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