Tag Archives: Aviation Safety

Separated and on the ground behind the enemy lines in Libya: Strike Eagle crew recount their lucky escape

The two crew members from the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath UK have recently told CNN’s Barbara Starr of the night they found themselves separated and on the ground behind enemy lines in Libya.

The U.S. aerial bombing campaign over Libya was just two days old last March when F-15 pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark got their mission – conduct airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces near Benghazi.

[Read also: Operation Odyssey Dawn explained (Day 4)]

Capt Stark was on his first combat mission and said to Starr “There’s obviously a little bit of nerves in the back of the stomach – it’s kind of like you’re going out for that big football or basketball game and you’re like, wow, this is it. This is the big leagues and I’m going to be flying in combat tonight.”

Harney and Stark took off from their temporary forward operating base at Aviano (Italy) and headed south out over the Med towards Libya and into the Benghazi area, they soon found targets and after releasing their final weapon of the sortie, they turned for Italy when, suddenly, Harney lost control of the Eagle which he described “very much like if you were driving you’re car down the road and you hit a patch of ice and your car starts spinning. That’s exactly what our aircraft at that point was doing.”

Capt. Stark sat in the back described his thoughts at that point as “This is really happening?”

The aircraft falling Stark made his May Day calls and both pilots ejected which was described as s”carey but a life or death decision” once the survival instincts kick in the lever is pulled and the pilots are out of the aircraft.

The two men got separated once under the parachute and landed in different locations neither knowing if they had landed amongst Ghadaffi’s forces they had only moments ago been bombing,  Harney described his feelings once on the ground “I was scared. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was terrified”.

He spent the next several hours hiding trying not to be found by hostile forces whilst trying to contact friendly forces on his radio that is part of the survival kit all pilots take into combat. Harney was lucky and made contact, an Osprey from USS Kearsarge touched down to rescue the pilot, Harney ran towards the aircraft hands raised high so that the Marines knew he posed no threat. After being bundled into the Osprey rather unceremoniously the Osprey dusted off and returned with Harney back to the carrier.

Stark however was not so lucky, he found himself in a field with two vehicles heading to wards his location, shining lights in his hiding place, with little or no chance of escape, stark heard a voice in English saying: “American come out – we are here to help.” Stark described his actions as so “I get up and put my hands up and start walking to the voice” he said. “Once I get there, my impression is, OK you have to assume that they are the bad guys.” He was driven to a near by building still not knowing if the forces were friendly or not.

Stark was taken into the building and found himself in front of a half circle of local people, he described his thoughts at that moment as  “Either this is where the beatings are going to start or this is where I am going to get a lot of help. Fortunately I walked into the room and got a round of applause.”

He was safe, due to the stress and shear terror of the previous hour or so Stark couldn’t remember the number to call for help and with cell phones available the only number he could think of was that of his parents “So I called him up, spoke with my dad and said, ‘Hey, I need you to make a call for me.'” the Libyan people sheltered Stark until an Italian boat arrived to pick him up and take him back to safety.

This article raises a few questions of what could have happened to the Eagle. From photos released by media outlets soon after the jet crashed it was obvious there was little or no forward movement of the aircraft and appeared to have landed vertically. This is what made analysts think it was in a flat spin as the crew bailed out and was at some good altitude as they had time to send a may day call and spend time under the chute.

Also what becomes apparent is there is no damage to the jet nozzles at the rear therefore eliminating damage from a MANPAD missile or a heat seeking missile. A radar guided missile however wouldn’t strike the aircraft necessarily at the rear, and the photo’s from the Guardian article above reminded of the crashed hulks of the Mig 29’s shot down during the Balkan conflict during the 90’s victims of AMRAAM’s.

According to the investigation report the Eagle was lost when the pilot performed a manoeuvre outside of the aircrafts flight envelope (whilst unbalanced) which sent it into an un-recoverable spin (during a jinking manover after weapons release).

Above images: Richard Clements

The crews from Lakenheath regularly undertake intense training in very difficult terrain and certainly handle this beast of a jet with the highest degree of skill. Hence, the issue over Libya must have been catastrophic. And the tension inside the cockpit much higher than in a normal training flight, increasing the risk of pilot error.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Laser strike against a Police helicopter caught on tape

Using a laser pointer against an aircraft is never a good idea and it can lead to an immediate arrest, especially if you strike a Police helicopter equipped with an IR TV camera.

The following video, released by the FBI, was taken on the night of Apr.27, 2010, when a 24-year old guy, Justin Stouder, was testing a laser pointer with a friend from his suburban St. Louis yeard. He was aiming at a distant tower when a Metro Air Support helicopter appeared 1.5 miles away. Few seconds later Stouder pointed the laser at the chopper and within minutes, police officers converged on his home and arrested him.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Doug Reinholz, who was piloting the helo with St. Louis County Police Sgt. Dan Cunningham on the FBI website says:

“People don’t realize by the time the laser hits us, the beam of light has grown, it’s no longer a pinpoint. And the plexiglass on the helicopter disperses the light even more. It was very disorientating.”

According to those who have suffered a “high light intoxication” on one eye, the laser appears in the cockpit as a flash of a camera in a pitch black car at night.

Interfering with a flying aircraft in the US can lead to a maximum of 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release, and pay a $250,000 fine.

In January 2011, the FAA announced that more than 2,800 reports of lasers strikes on aircraft have been recorded in 2010. In Italy, during the second half of 2010, 264 occurrences (involving both civil and military planes) have been recorded.  In the UK someone dared to point the laser to some AH-64 attack helos.

However, such kind of events have become quite frequent all around the world and laser attacks against planes during landing have been occurring almost daily.

Reno Air Races crash caused by a broken seat or missing trim tab?

On September 16, 2011, during the National Championship Air Races, that take place each year since 1964 at the Reno Stead Airport, near Reno, Nevada, a P-51D Mustang, piloted by Jimmy Leeward, crashed near the stands during the second lap of the Gold Heat of the race, killing the pilot and 10 spectators and injuring 69 people.

Reno air races are multi-lap races between aircraft (many of those are WWII warbirds) flying wingtip-to-wingtip on closed oval paths around pylons. Even if there’s a certain amount of risk when high performance aircraft fly so close each other as low as 15 meters off the ground, the one occurred during 2011 edition is the first mishap with spectators being killed.

The first thing I noticed by looking at the first pictures  of the P-51D named “The Galloping Ghost” crashing into a crowd of spectators is that the pilot of the plane could not be seen inside the cockpit moments before the impact.

I initially thought that the pilot could not be seen because he was huddled (after illness) but, even if unconscious, at least a part of his helmet would be visible through the cockpit canopy as his body should be retained by the seat belts.

The photograph published in the following hours suggested that a missing elevator trim tab could be the root cause of the incident.

Noteworthy, as I’ve written on Twitter on Sept. 20, even if the trim tab is missing, the elevator seems to be more or less neutral during the first seconds of flight of the P-51D.

I think that both details are strictly related. My theory is that the collapse of the trim tab at around 400-500 MPH has induced a sudden hard climb under extremely hi-G loads. Because of the sudden accelerations, the seat may have broken or become dislodged rendering the pilot invisible in the pictures and unable (if still conscious) to react.

I also believe that the tailwheel (clearly visible in the above AP picture) come out uncommanded, as a consequence of the hi-G loads.

The crash has raised alarm on Reno Air Races (that were cancelled for the rest of 2011) and, in general term, on airshows safety. Actually, those held in Reno are races, somethingmore similar to an Indianapolis 500 or a Formula 1 race rather than a traditional airshow. When aircraft flying at that speed compete one another, there’s an inherent risk for both pilots and spectators: such risk is probably no different than a NASCAR or F1 event, but it is higher than a normal airshow where solos and display team perform aerobatic maneuvers.

Competition brings men involved in races to their limits (and maybe beyond) rendering errors more likely. There can be fatal errors during displays but there can’t be competition-induced errors during traditional airshows. That’s why considering air races and airshows exactly alike is wrong.

Air India 101 conspiracy theory update: debris pictures

On Apr. 21, 2009 I’ve published an article about the Air India 101 that crashed into the Mount Blanc in 1966. Quite surprisingly, that post remains one of the most commented of this blog.

Since then, Daniel Roche, the French aviation enthusiast who has been researching this topic since many years and has conducted several expeditions on the crash site [collecting 5 tonne (?!?!) of plane parts], has sent me emails with pictures that, according to him, would prove his theory of a collision with an Italian fighter jet.

I’ve already written in my previous article what I think about the crash. Plane crash investigations require experts in various fields. They must be performed in accordance with specific procedures and protocols, that cover also how evidences must be collected and preserved. So, regardless what Daniel believes, I still think the official report of the French BEA says it all about the reasons of the crash of the Air India 101 flight.

Furthermore, I don’t like conspiracy theories very much.

However, the last pictures Daniel has sent to me are quite interesting because they show some aircraft parts he has found on the glacier. Text on the debris is English, suggesting an American fighter. I don’t know where he actually found them and I haven’t checked yet if another US or Italian plane has crashed in the same area but I’m curious to hear from any of this weblog’s readers who is able to identify the type of aircraft that parts and tank (?) belong to.

Guess what’s worse than a flameout on take off? A flameout on catapult launch from an aircraft carrier

A quite embarrassing episode marked the end of MAKS 2011 air show on Aug. 21, at Ramenskoye air base, near Moscow. The Sukhoi PAK-FA/T-50, Russia’s 5th generation fighter plane, was forced to abort take off after suffering a flameout in the right-hand Saturn engine.

As below footage shows, the T-50-2, the second prototype of the stealth fighter (52 Blue), aborts its take off roll  after bursts of flames erupted from the engine.

Deploying the airbrakes and the two drag chutes after reaching a speed of around 60 MPH, Sukhoi’s test pilot was able to halt the aircraft well before the end of the runway.

If the PAK-FA flameout in front of some 200.000 spectators had only a negative impact on Sukhoi’s reputation, similar engine failures can be quite thrilling if they occur to fully loaded planes in dangerous phases of a flight: departure, initial climb, landing.

I took the top picture in the Indian Ocean aboard USS Nimitz (CVN-68) on Oct. 19, 2009. An F-18C (BuNo 165205 Modex 405) belonging to the VFA-86 “Sidewinders” experiences a compressor stall during the catapult launch from CAT number 4. The aircraft is fully loaded with fuel and weapons, and it is taking off to perform an on-call CAS in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the aircraft took off in spite of the loud bang and flames coming out from the port engine exhaust that in the second image seems to be operating without the afterburner.

Here’s the entire sequence of the launch showing the single engine departure.

The compressor surge is a particular kind of compressor stall that occurs when the hot vapour generated by the aircraft carrier’s catapult is ingested by the aircraft air intake thus creating a breakdown in compression resulting in a the compressor’s inability to absorb the momentary disturbance and to continue pushing the air against the already-compressed air behind it. As a consequence, there’s a momentary reversal of air flow and a violent expulsion of previously compressed air out through the engine intake producing some loud bangs from the engine and “back fires”.

The compressor will usually recover to normal flow once the engine pressure ratio reduces to a level at which the compressor is capable of sustaining stable airflow. Some engines have automatic recover functions even if pilots experiencing the surge can be compelled to act on the throttle or, in some cases, relight the engine.

Compressor surges are frequent on U.S. aircraft carriers. Unlike the T-50, that could precautionally abort its take off, carrier air wing airplanes can’t stop their run once it’s started. Fortunately, F-18s are used to take off even if an engine is temporarily unserviceable: this shows once again how rusty Legacy Hornet are sometime tougher than some 4+ or 5th generation “colleagues”.

I don’t know if a PAK-FA would be able to take off after experiencing a compressor surge aboard an aircraft carrier but I know for sure the F-35C (that, along with the other variants has returned to fly last week, after being grounded for an IPP failure on Aug. 3) won’t: it’s an easy-to-fly, single-pilot, 5th generation fighter jet. With a single engine.