Air-Minded: Where’s a Black Box When You Need It? (Updated 7/23/15)

In an Air Force pilot’s career there are few tasks harder and more frustrating than trying to figure out how and why a fellow pilot crashed, especially when said pilot dies and is unable to tell you why and how the crash occurred, and oh by the way hits the ground so hard that it becomes nearly impossible to find clues in the wreckage. It’s even worse when pilot and aircraft disappear, leaving no clues at all.

Massachusetts ANG F-15C Eagle (USAF photo)

‘Hawk 11 declaring emergency’: How an F-15C Eagle fighter crashed in Virginia

I sympathize with the officers who were assigned to investigate the fatal crash of a Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C Eagle, call sign Hawk 11, in August, 2014. The pilot, a lieutenant colonel with years of experience in the Eagle, crashed on a solo cross-country flight from his base in Westfield, Massachusetts to a naval air station near New Orleans, where contractors were to install a new radar in the aircraft.

After takeoff, Hawk 11 climbed to a cruising altitude of 43,000 feet and set a course south. Somewhere over Virginia the aircraft began descending rapidly, and a few seconds later the pilot radioed a terse announcement to air traffic control: “Hawk 11 declaring emergency.” An air traffic controller asked for an update a short time later. The pilot responded: “Affirm. Standby.” That was the last communication with Hawk 11. From that point on, air traffic controllers could only watch as the aircraft’s transponder return indicated a steady and rapid loss of altitude, all the way to the ground.

The crash site was in the George Washington National Forest near Deerfield, Virginia. The impact left a 20-foot deep crater and only a few intact pieces and parts of the F-15. I remember following news of the crash last August, and one detail I recall was that it took the crash site response team a couple of days to figure out that the pilot had not ejected before impact but had died in the cockpit. This told me there was very little left of him.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.31.30 AM
Hawk 11 crash site (USAF photo)

So, no witness. The pilot died in the crash. Air traffic control was able to provide the timeline of the radio calls, along with a radar trace of the F-15’s rapid descent to the ground. That left the crash site and crater, with whatever clues they contained. I’ve seen high speed impacts, and I don’t imagine there was much of the aircraft left. Investigators must have worked very hard to find any physical clues at all.

Here’s the thing: military fighter aircraft of this era do not carry “black box” cockpit voice and aircraft performance recorders. I understand newer fighters like the F-22 and F-35, which are largely digital platforms, do.

Reading between the lines of the linked article, investigators presumably were able to dig up the cockpit warning light panel. From it they were able to determine the environmental control system (ECS) warning light was on at the time of the crash.

The ECS supplies cockpit pressurization and air conditioning. An ECS warning could be triggered by fire or overheating in the avionics bays; it could also be triggered by superheated air from the jet engines’ compressor sections bypassing the cooling system and venting straight into the avionics and cockpit. It might also indicate a pressurization failure. Any or all of these things are deadly serious and would be immediately apparent to the pilot. I always knew that if I got an ECS light I’d have to select 100% oxygen and start an immediate dive to below 10,000 feet, where I could dump cabin pressure and cool the cockpit with ram air from outside. That’s probably what this pilot was trying to do when he started down from 43,000 feet.

Investigators knew the F-15 entered a rapid descent, presumably initiated by the pilot, who did declare an emergency, not something you ever do lightly. There’s evidence for all of that. The forensic evidence of the ECS light provided a logical reason why the pilot would have wanted to descend, and quickly. But why didn’t the pilot level off at a lower altitude? There’s no way to know. The report doesn’t address toxicology, and that’s probably because there wasn’t enough of Hawk 11’s pilot left to determine his physical condition at impact. Presumably, the pilot became incapacitated during the descent and was no longer controlling the aircraft as it dove into the ground.

That, of course, is speculative, but what else could explain his failure to level off at a lower altitude? He couldn’t tell the investigators. Physical evidence apparently couldn’t tell them either. Here’s how the Air Force put it: “With no eyewitness accounts, surviving aircrew members, detailed emergency calls, or flight data recordings, and with minimal information from analysis of components recovered at the mishap site, the specific reason [the pilot] became incapacitated could not be determined.”

I’ve been on mishap investigation boards like this one. I investigated an F-15 crash in Alaska where the pilot, a close friend and squadron mate, went down without making any radio calls first, and what’s worse, crashed in an area where radar coverage was blocked by mountains and didn’t go all the way to the ground, so there was no radar trace to tell us where he was and what he was doing when he got into trouble. The other F-15 pilot in the flight was up in the weather and didn’t see a thing. We knew the approximate location where the F-15 went down, but it took two whole days to find the actual crash site. My friend hit hard and fast in a wooded area on the side of a mountain and didn’t leave a lot of himself or the airplane behind. When I saw the Virginia crash site photo above, my first thought was how closely it resembled the Alaska crash site.

Our mishap report, when we finally finished it, was 100% informed speculation. It’s frustrating as hell when that’s the best you can do.

Interestingly, during the course of that investigation we were told about an Alaskan Air Command F-4E that had disappeared a few years earlier, along with its two crew members, at almost the exact location of our F-15 crash. Talk about leaving few clues behind: those two guys left no clues at all. Both of them, along with their Phantom, simply vanished, never to be found. And that’s pretty much what that earlier mishap report said: sorry, Charlie, we have no idea what happened here.

About a year before I started flying Eagles at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands, an F-4E from the same squadron went down into the North Sea. The pilot and back-seater in another F-4E saw a splash out of the corners of their eyes. They immediately circled back and marked the location, but despite a lengthy, thorough search in the shallow waters of the North Sea, neither bodies nor aircraft were found, and no one ever figured out what happened. During the time I flew Eagles at Kadena Air Base in Japan, we lost two F-15s at sea. Same thing: no radio calls, no witnesses, no aircraft wreckage, no bodies. They vanished. The ocean is large and we are small. I’m glad I didn’t have to serve on those mishap boards.

Most aircraft crash sites, however, are found. I suppose a damn good argument can be made for installing black box cockpit voice and aircraft performance recorders on older military aircraft. We’re still flying lots of older aircraft like the F-15, and that means we haven’t lost the last one yet, not by a long shot. I wonder if the mishap board for the Massachusetts ANG crash made that recommendation? I know the mishap report I helped write after the Alaska F-15 crash did. And that was back in 1985.

Update (7/23/15): I edited the post to make some points clearer and to do a better job of connecting dots. Also, too, this, forwarded by a friend this morning: Air Force chooses solid-state data recorders from Calculex for F-15 jet aircraft. The linked article isn’t clear whether these are crash-survivable airliner-style recorders or something else, but for now I’m going to assume the Air Force is finally taking action on my 1985 F-15 class A mishap board recommendation.

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One thought on “Air-Minded: Where’s a Black Box When You Need It? (Updated 7/23/15)

  • This serious article about black boxes reminds me of a joke going around, which is modified to fit the locale: Now that automotive vehicles have black boxes, a study of fatal crashes have indicated that in 49 states the usual last words of the driver are “Oh, shit.” In Wyoming, those words are “Hold my beer, watch this shit.” Never mind that automotive boxes are data, not voice recorders.

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