Pilot error was behind a F-35C Lightning II fighter jet crashing onto the deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson before sliding into the South China Sea last year, according to a Naval Air Forces investigation released this week.
But investigators also noted the pilot error “was not conducted in a reckless manner nor with malicious intent.”
The mishap pilot was attempting a specialized landing on Jan. 24, 2022, that was an “approved and common maneuver,” but the pilot had never before performed it.
“As a result of the compressed timeline and the (pilot’s) lack of familiarity with the maneuver, the (pilot) lost situational awareness and failed to complete his landing checklist,” according to the investigation. “Specifically, the (pilot) 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.”
This led the pilot to come in for the landing without enough power, and by the time he realized his situation, it was too late.
The USS Carl Vinson’s deployment to U.S. 7th Fleet marked the first time that F-35Cs were included in a carrier air wing.
Six sailors were injured in the mishap, including the pilot, who safely ejected.
Before salvage crews recovered the jet from a depth of 12,000 feet in early March, video of the crash circulated among the crew and was eventually leaked to the media.
The investigation mentions a Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, and Naval Air Forces spokesman Cmdr. Zachary Harrell confirmed Wednesday that the mishap pilot, a high-performing lieutenant at the time, is no longer flying for the Navy but continues to serve as an officer.
At the time of the mishap, the automated landing systems were optional for pilots, but following the mishap and the mishap pilot’s self-confessed “task saturation” at the time, Naval Air Forces now mandate that F-35 pilots use the automated assistance.
Otherwise, the probe indicates that everything else was squared away that day.
The jet was mission capable for the mission and was in compliance with maintenance requirements and other directives, according to the investigation.
The pilot had more than 370 flight hours in the Lightning II, got eight hours of sleep before flying and was not dealing with other issues.
He was attempting an “expedited recovery” at the time, a common landing practice that reduces open deck time and increases efficiency.
But the pilot had never initiated an expedited recovery from overhead the ship, and the crash came during his first attempt to do so.
Otherwise, the probe found, the pilot “was a previous Top-5 Nugget and a Top-10 ball-flyer” in Carrier Air Wing 2, “indicating that his landing performance on the ship had been exceptional for a first-tour junior officer.”
The pilot told his squadron comrades that he wanted to try the landing before the end of the deployment, “but he did not feel pressure to perform an expedited recovery” that day.
He later told investigators he did not complete his landing checklist and turn on the automated landing assistance systems “because he was overwhelmed by an abundance of tasks (a condition known as task saturation),” the investigation states.
The pilot thus approached in a manual mode where he would be controlling both the stick and the throttle, according to the investigation.
Landing in the manual mode means an increased workload for the pilot in terms of controlling approach airspeed, lineup and glideslope.
The available automated modes, which were not required at the time, allow the jet to automatically control engine thrust to maintain a desired angle of attack, allowing a pilot to focus on using the pitch stick to fly the desired glideslope, according to the probe.
“The aircraft developed a rapid sink rate during the in-close portion of the landing approach and a manual engine power demand was not added until 2.6 seconds prior to impact,” the investigation states. “This later power addition was insufficient to prevent the aircraft from striking the ramp.”
When the jet hit Carl Vinson’s ramp, it sheared the landing gear, and bounced the tail into the air before the nose hit the deck.
The jet caught the first arresting wire on the deck, turning the jet’s nose perpendicular to its intended path, and the jet’s “nose gear” caught the second wire.
Another portion of the jet then snagged the second arresting wire, causing the plane to spin counter-clockwise, at which point the pilot ejected.
Still spinning, the jet slid off the front port side of the carrier.
Less than a minute elapsed between the pilot commencing the overhead maneuver and crashing into the ship’s deck.
The commanding officer of the jet’s unit, Strike Fighter Squadron 147, later told investigators “he did not encourage expedited recoveries or want his pilots delaying their commencement from overhead the ship in order to set up an expedited recovery,” and that there had been “no significant safety issues” with the squadron’s expedited recoveries over more than six months of deployment.
“He trusted his pilots to use good headwork,” the investigation states.
After the crash, helicopters assigned to the carrier soon found the pilot in the water, surrounded by debris and smoke markers, floating in his survival raft.
Some of the injured sailors were struck by debris from the crash, and as they were stretchered out, sailors began clearing the deck of debris.
Three sailors, including the pilot, were medically evacuated.
The lost jet cost more than $115 million, and an EA-18G Growler jet sustained more than $2.5 million in damages from crash debris.
The probe praises the helicopter crew who rescued the pilot and the sailors who got the deck back into landing shape quickly after the mishap so that loitering jets could land safely.
The aircraft was a total loss.
“Multiple weeks of saltwater intrusion at depth will likely result in the lack of salvage potential for any aircraft components,” investigators wrote.
The fact that the jet caught the arresting wires after hitting the ramp slowed the aircraft and sent it spinning, a development that likely prevented the fuselage from hitting other sailors, gear or aircraft on the ship’s bow.
The investigation calls for the Navy and the jet’s manufacturer to develop more alerting systems for when pilots hit their desired angle of attack and for when a pilot is not in one of the automatic modes while attempting a landing.
Among the recommendations adopted and ordered by the head of Naval Air Forces, Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, was that pilots be required to use the automated landing systems.
Before last year’s mishap, pilots were directed to use the automated assistance “as desired.”
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.