Category Archives: Aviation Safety

The story of the mission to rescue an F-14 Tomcat pilot behind the enemy lines in Iraq

The story of the first Combat SAR (Search And Rescue) mission behind enemy lines since Vietnam.

One of the most famous missions flew during the Operation Desert Storm was the Combat SAR sortie performed by A-10s Sandys and by MH-53Js from the 20th Special Operations Squadron on Jan. 21, 1991 to recover Lt. Devon Jones, an F-14B (AA 212, BuNo 161430, at the time designated F-14A Plus) pilot from the VF-103 Sluggers, callsign “Slate 46″, downed in Iraq with its RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Lawrence Slade.

Jones and Slade  were shot down by an Iraqi SAM (Surface to Air Missile) in the first hours of the morning of the fourth day of war, while they were returning to the USS Saratoga (CV-60), after a successful EA-6B escort mission. On their way back to the aircraft carrier, Jones and Slade spotted a SAM coming through the clouds: even if Jones added power and started an evasive action, the missile exploded near the Tomcat’s tail. The aircraft entered into an unstoppable spin which forced the aircrew to eject. During the descent the two men saw each other for the last time before entering the clouds.

As he descended towards the ground, Jones tried to pull out his PRC-90 radio, but due to the fact that he flew without gloves, his hands were cold and he became afraid that he would drop his radio so he pushed it back into the vest pocket. Once landed, he started to walk towards what he thought to be west, trying to reach the Saudi border, but when he saw the sun rising, he realized his mistake. Nevertheless, at that point Jones thought it was good he was quite far from the crash site. He reached a little vegetation and thanks to his survival knife scooped out a foxhole in a small mound large enough to hide.

After he had been down for about six hours,  at 12:05 local time, he tried his radio again. And someone responded to his call.

As Jones recalls in David Donald and Stan Morse book Gulf Air War Debrief: “ ‘Slate 46, how do you read?’ That was the first time that I knew that there had been an ongoing SAR effort. […] ‘Let me come a little closer so I can talk to you’ he said.”

Still, Jones didn’t know who was the guy that responded to his call when he came to the radio telling to Jones that he would release a flare.

Since he was thinking to talk with a helicopter, Jones was surprised when the pilot revealed him that he was flying an aircraft “ ‘Ok, now, I’ll come down to where you can see me,’ he said. Lo and behold, he was an A-10! He was Sandy 57, like those guys in Vietnam, trained in combat SAR. I brought him with standard aviator talk. He didn’t see me, but he flew right over me at 50-100 feet and dropped a way point in his INS (Inertial Navigation System). ‘I’ve got to get some gas,’ he called. ‘Minimize your transmissions and come back up in 30 minutes.’

The Sandy pilot directed the helicopters toward Lt. Jones. As the SAR force headed for the downed Naval Aviator, they heard MiGs being vectored toward them. An F-15 RESCAP (REScue Combat Air Patrol) chased the threat away. After they got their gas, the A-10s returned, caught up with the helicopters and brought them in. After that a farmer truck passed nearby Jones, finally the F-14 pilot heard the A-10s telling to the helicopters they were 30 miles from his position. They asked him to shine his signal mirror south and after Jones did it, one of the A-10s told him to look for a helicopter 15 miles out, but he saw only the A-10s flying in a circle and Jones gave them instructions to his position.

But since the Iraqis were listening to their communications, while the planes came in, half a mile down the south road, Jones saw an army truck. After a moment of panic he remembered that the A-10s as well as the helicopters were heavy armed and, in fact, within 3-4 seconds, the Sandys opened fire with their 30 mm cannons, destroying the enemy truck.  Then for the first time he saw a helicopter “I had never seen such a beautiful sight as that big, brown American H-53. […] I grabbed my kneeboard cards and gear as he landed about 20 yards away. One of the special forces guys jumped out and waved me on. I jumped in and off we went, 140 miles to go at 140 knots, at 20 feet! Pretty impressive machine. Just what you’d expect from these special forces people with lots of guns hanging off them.”

Lt. Jones was brought to a forward base in Saudi Arabia, where he was hospitalized for a brief medical exam, then the next day an S-3 from his carrier flew him back to his squadron. Following a three-day rest, he returned to the cockpit.

On the contrary, Lt. Slade, Slate 46 RIO, was less lucky: he endured interrogation, torture and starvation in the Iraqi hands for 43 days.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

No, Auto-GCAS could not have prevented the Germanwings crash

Several articles have mentioned the A-GCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System) as the military tech capable to avert the Germanwings crash.

We recently run a very detailed article about GCAT (Ground Collision Avoidance Technology), the umbrella term for a whole variety of technologies and applications in military, commercial, general and unmanned aviation aimed to prevent CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) incidents.

The Auto-GCAS (Automatic Ground-Collision Avoidance System) is an automatic system that, once installed and activated on a plane, monitors the flight parameters: to make it simple, when predictive algorithms and computer software determine that altitude, speed, attitude, GPS position, terrain are such that the CFIT is imminent, the A-GCAS automatically (without pilot initiation) sends inputs to the flight controls to recover the plane.

Developed by NASA and deployed to the U.S. F-16 fleet, A-GCAS is already credited for saving the life of a Fighting Falcon pilot involved in Operation Inherent Resolve (along with several other ones).

Will Auto-GCAS technology transition from military to civil aviation in the near future?

Whilst it’s safe to say believe technology behind Auto GCAS may one day make its way to the civilian aviation we should not forget that  airliners are less prone to those kind of issues (like spatial disorientation or GLOC) that make the A-GCAS so important for jet fighters. Moreover, civil planes already feature several kinds of GCAT (Ground Collision Avoidance Technologies) that address the most common threats to the airliners.

Could such technology have prevented Germanwings crash?

Dealing with the impact the A-GCAS would have had on Germanwings CFIT, it’s safe to say that it would not have prevented the aircraft from being deliberately crashed into a mountain: A-GCAS or PARS (Pilot Activated Recovery System) are safety systems based on the assumption that pilots wants to save their planes.

The A-GCAS as it is now, must be activated by the pilot: once activated it can’t be overridden (the computer will recover the plane taking over command of the plane), but a pilot who wants to commit suicide has the option to disarm it.

Until a new version that can’t be disabled is introduced, the pilot will have the possibility to crash his/her plane on the mountain.

Furthermore these systems have some important limitations: for instance A-GCAS can’t make inputs to the throttle meaning that a pilot who wants to crash a plane may theoretically reduce throttle to idle to disable A-GCAS.

Then there is also another aspect to take into consideration: all the technology aboard a plane can become unreliable and any automatic sense-and-avoid system which acts on the flight control based on information gathered by failed sensors can become useless or even dangerous for the safety of the plane.

There are many examples (Air France 447 is among them) in which bad instrument readings, clogged pitot tubes, sensors suffering failures, etc. have been contributing factors to aviation disasters: that is the reason why pilots are usually given the possibility to disarm every onboard system, including (on military planes only, at least for the moment) the A-GCAS.

Image credit: Sebastien Mortier

 

In photos, evacuation of a simulated incapacitated A-10 Thunderbolt pilot

Firefighters at airbases all around the world have to be familiar with egress procedures.

The images in this post show firefighters from the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron evacuate a simulated incapacitated patient from a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft during egress training at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri,  on Mar. 18, 2015.

Egress training event

Egress training on all the airframes on base (at Whiteman and everywhere else) is important as firefighter teams must be trained and able to properly respond to disabled aircraft or injured aircrew.

Egress training event

Before evacuating the patient, the firefighters must extinguish any flames that may be present on the aircraft, then they have to open the aircraft canopy, shut down the engine and safely remove aircrew members.

Egress training event

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

Video shows Syrian Navy Mi-14 anti-submarine helicopter (about to) crash land near Idlib

A Syrian Mi-14 ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) helicopter crash landed in the Idlib region.

On Mar. 22, a Syrian Navy Mil Mi-14 helicopter crash landed in the Idlib region, northwestern of the country.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least four crew members (out of 6 probably aboard the helicopter) survived the incident and were captured by the Nusra Front and Islamic faction close to the capsized wreckage.

The helicopter was forced to attempt an emergency landing following a technical failure SOHR reported.

Here is a video, allegedly showing the Mi-14 going down earlier today:

H/T @hlk01 for the heads-up. Top image via @Tom_Antonov

 

U.S. drone crashed in Syria. Probably shot down by a Syrian SA-3 surface to air missile

An MQ-1 Predator crashed in Syria. According to Syria state media it was shot down by Syrian air defenses.

The U.S. lost contact with an unarmed MQ-1 Predator drone on Mar. 17.

Whilst Pentagon officials could not confirm whether the aircraft was shot down or crashed because of a failure, the Syrian SANA news agency reported that the unmanned aerial vehicle was shot down in the Latakia province by the Syrian air defenses.

Indeed, images of the wreckage of an aerial vehicle were later posted on social media: provided the photographs were really taken at the crash site, they show parts of the UAV (including a wheel of the landing gear) along with parts of what seems to be the body an S-125 Neva/Pechora (NATO reporting name SA-3 Goa) Soviet surface-to-air missile system: this may confirm the version of the Syrian State Media according to which the MQ-1, most probably operating out of Incirlik airbase, in Turkey, was shot down.

The event is interesting for several reasons:

1) it proves U.S. drones perform ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in a region (on the western coast of Syria) currently not interested by the air strikes targeting the Islamic State. Monitoring jihadist activities in the area? Keeping an eye on the fightings between rebels and loyalist forces? Monitoring shipments that reach Syria via sea?

2) if the shot down is confirmed, it proves that Assad fires back and Syrian air defenses can pose a threat to manned and unmanned aircraft that operate inside the Syrian airspace.

3) the area where the drone was allegedly shot down is the same where a Turkish RF-4E jet was shot down by a coastal air defense battery.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force