Saturday, December 4, 2021

Mid-Air Collision: F-22 Raptor, F-35 Fighter Jet Almost Crashed Into Each Other During US Air Force Drills

Documents recently released to Air Force Times through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed substantial details regarding a US Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor fighter jet crash that happened on 15 May last year.

Following the incident, during a mission to inspect the crash site, another collision between an F-22 and an F-35 Lightning II fighter was avered, according to reports.

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Backdrop: F-22 Raptor Crash

On 15 May 2020, a large-force air combat training exercise with six F-35s, three F-22s, and four F-16Cs was to take place at the Eglin Air Force Base.

The F-22 Raptor that crashed was being flown by a captain serving as the 43rd Fighter Squadron’s assistant operations director. The aircraft left the base using the callsign Hornet 1.

The pilot noticed the first sign of the problem as soon as the Raptor lifted off a cockpit warning light had started flashing. Since no obvious problems were visible, he continued. However, at an altitude of just about 50 feet, the aircraft began to roll to the left without being commanded to do so.

An Air Force photo of the wreckage of the F-22 that crashed on May 15, 2020

The pilot, suspecting a potential flame-out in the left engine, throttled back both the Raptor’s Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engines and leveled out. In the meantime, his wingman briefly inspected the engine for any apparent issues. Nothing seemed to be amiss.

Then, the Raptor’s nose pointed up about 45 degrees toward the sky. A warning message indicating degraded air data flashed on the screen. This was followed by the jet again rolling to the left and then, without any warning, pitching down. The wingman said this left the Raptor “almost inverted”.

But the pilot, yet again, managed to regain control and decided to continue the exercise.

Then the third alert popped up, informing the pilot that g-forces were stressing the plane too much. He decided to attempt to safely put down the F-22 by burning off fuel on the way back to the ground, hoping to land on the longest runway.

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“As I passed 10,000 feet, the jet began to have uncontrollable tendencies again … a barrel-roll type feel,” the pilot noted. “It took a majority of the pressure I had available in my right arm to keep the airplane in level flight, and then at that point, I could no longer turn left.”

By this time, it was quite apparent that the cockpit display was showing incorrect altitude and speed values in comparison to what his wingman was reporting. It was at this juncture that the pilot decided to eject. Post his ejection, the Raptor spiraled to the ground, ending up in a blaze at the Eglin Training Range.

The pilot landed in shrubbery within around 100 yards of a nearby road. He hitched a ride in a government-owned vehicle to get back to Eglin.

Screen grab from an Air Force video showing the pilot battling to keep control of the F-22

Cause and Effect

It was determined that the root cause of the accident was a maintenance error made after the aircraft was washed. This implies that the set procedure was not followed properly by one or more ground crew members.

The USAF said that this error “impacted control inputs transmitted to the aircraft”. However, no further details have been provided regarding the same. It is still unclear whether changes have been made in the maintenance procedure. There is no information regarding any potential remedial work carried out on any other aircraft.

This crash left the Air Force with 185 Raptors. Each jet costs approximately $143 million. Production has ceased since 2011. In this context, the loss of an aircraft is bound to have a significant impact.

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Several F-22s that were stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida were also damaged during the 2018 Hurricane Michael. Several Raptor jets were transferred to Eglin due to the Tyndall base suffering extensive damage during the storm.

F-22, F-35 Collision Averted 

After the F-22 pilot ejected, F-35s from the same training exercise made their way to the scene with the objective of relaying the coordinates to rescuers. They had planned on remaining in the area to oversee the recovery.

However, the F-35s coordinating the rescue began to run low on fuel and left. In doing so, they almost collided with F-22s and the report described it as “saturated and fairly dangerous.”

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The number of jets involved in this close call is still unclear. Although, almost all the jets that were a part of the training exercise would have still been airborne over the range at the time.

Four days later, there was an accident involving another F-35. This one, though, wasn’t lucky enough to escape unscathed. The May 19 crash of an F-35A Lightning II at the Eglin Base was caused by the pilot trying to land at a really high speed.

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File Image: F-35

There was also a previously unknown flight control logic glitch that rendered the aircraft’s tail unresponsive.

The USAF’s report regarding the incident posted online on September 30, listed multiple pilot mistakes that investigators believe significantly contributed to the crash. They found the pilot to be fatigued which resulted in “experienced cognitive degradation.”

A misaligned helmet-mounted display also distracted the pilot at a critical point in the flight. Although the pilot in this crash ejected successfully, they sustained non-life-threatening injuries.

Since this was the second crash in 4 days at the Eglin base, it alarmed the base leadership and prompted them to temporarily put flights on hold to focus on safety.

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