The US Navy (USN) is blaming pilot error for a January 2022 crash aboard one of the service’s aircraft carriers that injured six and resulted in the loss of a Lockheed Martin F-35C fighter.
In written findings from an investigation into the incident released on 21 February, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the USN’s Seventh Fleet, said the F-35 pilot was attempting a “common manoeuvre” known as an expedited recovery breaking, but one that the aviator – referred to as the mishap pilot (MP) – had never before attempted.
“As a result of… the [pilot’s] lack of familiarity with the manoeuvre, the MP lost situational awareness and failed to complete his landing check list,” Thomas says. “Specifically, the MP remained in manual mode when he should have been – and thought he was – in an automated command mode designed to reduce pilot workload during landings.
“The mishap was the result of pilot error,” he adds. At the time, the service initially described the incident as a “landing mishap”.
The USN describes an expedited recovery breaking manoeuvre as when “an aircraft initiates a turn to downwind from either behind the ship or over the top of the ship”. The procedure is also known as a Sierra Hotel Break by naval aviators.
The technique is “commonplace in naval aviation”, according to the service, because it can reduce the amount of time a recovered aircraft spends on the open ship deck.
“During an expedited recovery, an aircraft uses g-forces to decelerate over the course of a 360-degree turn, dropping the landing gear when the aircraft is below landing gear transition speed,” the crash investigation explains.
Notably, when breaking aft of or overhead the carrier – as was the F-35 pilot in the 2022 incident – the pilot has reduced time to configure the aircraft and conduct landing checks, the USN says. The investigation report cites this as a critical factor, alongside the pilot’s inexperience, in the crash.
Although the investigation’s findings were delivered to senior USN leaders last June, and those conclusions affirmed by a top admiral in August, the results have only now become public – more than one year after the mishap occurred.
In that incident, the mishap F-35C was travelling at a speed of 400kt (740km/h) when the pilot executed a series of 7g breaking turns while in “maximum afterburner” to cut speed and approach the USS Carl Vinson for landing.
However, the pilot neglected to engage the advanced jet’s Approach Power Compensation (APC) system – an onboard tool designed to reduce pilot workload during landing by automating some approach tasks.
Instead, the pilot inadvertently remained in manual approach mode – without realising his F-35 was not automatically handling some critical flight adjustments. The result was a high landing approach made at an airspeed of 180kt (333km/h) – well above the 140kt the USN says was ideal for the scenario.
The pilot had also reduced the fighter’s throttle to idle, according to flight data, which the investigation says left the F-35 “extremely underpowered” on approach for landing.
In an attempt to address the high approach and airspeed, the pilot made a “nose-down correction”. However, combined with the lack of power, this pushed the F-35 below the angle of attack (AOA) needed to land aboard the carrier. The pilot attempted to throttle up and regain altitude, but was unable to make the correction in time.
The F-35 struck the aft ramp of the Carl Vinson, at 123kt with an AOA of 21°. The subsequent impact crushed the jet’s front landing gear and sent the fighter skidding across the flight deck.
The pilot ejected before the aircraft fell overboard. Six sailors on the flight deck were injured by debris from the crash.
The USN later recovered the wrecked F-35 airframe from the South China Sea.
Following the crash, the service changed its F-35C flight manual to require the use of the APC system for carrier landings. The USN also wants to make hardware changes to its fighter jets that will alert pilots and shipboard personnel when automated landing systems are not engaged.
Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, commander of naval aviation in the US Pacific Fleet, says the USN will also consult with Lockheed about adding an “external indicator” to the F-35 and Boeing F/A-18 fighters that would alert landing signal officers on the carrier flight deck the APC is turned off.
Whitesell, who affirmed the conclusions reached by Thomas in the incident investigation, also wants to add a head-up display indicator and/or cockpit audio tone that would alert both F-35 and F/A-18 pilots when their aircraft has “reached on-speed AOA” without assisted landing systems engaged.
The January 2022 mishap was the first of several aviaiton safety incidents that year involving F-35s. In October, a US Air Force F-35A crashed at Hill AFB in Utah, forcing the pilot to eject. Then in December, the pilot of a short take-off and vertical landing F-35B variant executed a ground-level ejection following a failed vertical landing in Fort Worth, Texas – where Lockheed assembles the advanced jets.