F-35 ‘Overwhelmed’ By Pilot Attempts To Save It (Corrected)

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An unstable approach, a misaligned helmet and an “overwhelmed” flight control system led to the crash of an Air Force F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida last May. An Air Force accident report released a few weeks ago found plenty of fault with the pilot’s actions but it was ultimately the airplane that wouldn’t allow itself to be saved. The plane’s overworked processor set the horizontal stabilizers to the “default” position of trailing edge down just as the pilot initiated a go-around to try his landing again. When the aircraft didn’t respond to firewalled throttle and full back pressure on the stick, the pilot ejected and the plane rolled, caught fire and disintegrated. The pilot suffered minor injuries and the aircraft, worth $175,983,949, became a debris field.

The aircraft was on a night training flight and was landing at Eglin at 9:26 p.m. on May 19 when the accident occurred. The pilot was distracted by a misaligned helmet that was showing him erroneous head-up display information and didn’t shut off a “speed hold” feature that maintained an airspeed of 202 knots. That’s 50 knots faster than the 152-knot touchdown speed of the F-35. The aircraft was also at a 5.2 degree angle of attack when the manual calls for 13.2 degrees. The result was a floating three-point landing followed by pilot-induced porpoising. As the pilot tried to salvage the landing with rapid control inputs, the flight control computer couldn’t keep up and went to the default nose-down setting. “With the horizontal stabilizers set in this trailing edge down position, the [pilot] then input full aft stick for approximately three seconds and selected maximum afterburner (AB) in an unsuccessful attempt to set a go around attitude before successfully ejecting from the [aircraft].”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly used the term “glideslope” instead of angle of attack in describing the aircraft’s landing attitude.

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35 COMMENTS

    • He tried to go around, but the computers said “Land”. Airbus had a similar accident. Fly-By-Wire is not a new concept, but if they’re going to incorporate computers into flight control systems, pilots have to know their limitations and functions.

        • Fighters are different in that regard. You yank the power, pop the speed brakes and tack-on a little ‘alpha’, and that 50 knots will disappear quickly. I remember a botched maneuver by the Thunderbirds which featured four F-16s in slow flight passing by in a box formation. A fifth plane would pass through that box at very high speed. Something didn’t look right to the fast mover, and he aborted the pass, commencing this action about three quarters of a mile from the formation. It was amazing to witness how quickly the pilot was able to slam the brakes on that hurtling Falcon, and join the formation for their next pass.

  1. And some people believe that airplanes can be “programmed” to fly themselves safely sans pilots ! Not that the pilot made a huge difference here. I thought we’d gotten past “overwhelmed processors” with the Apollo program, too ?? All the more reason for the F-15EX and an upgraded F-16. I personally believe that the F-35 is going to go down as the biggest boondoggle (read $$$$) in military aviation history.

    • Amen to that. The craft has been almost 20 years in service and is still not ready to be a front-line fighter with all the bugs and fixes it has endured. Plus, regardless of whether each plane costs $100 million or $175 million, they are considered too expensive to commit to combat for fear of losing some. If the computer control system cannot handle the inputs from a ham-fisted pilot on landing, how would it handle extreme maneuvers in an aerial dogfight? The F-35 was supposed to be the Swiss Army Knife of the Air Force so they could mothball lesser craft like the A-10, F-16, FA-18, etc. However, like most one-tool-does-all devices it does a lot of things, but none of them well.

    • It’s not just mishaps that will highlight the limitations of these planes. Every time a commander decides to sortie a B-2, F-22 or F-35, even for a milk run, they’re risking hundreds of millions of dollars–even BILLIONS of Dollars–worth of taxpayer funded hardware. They’ll have to think long and hard about the consequences of operating these egregiously expensive planes as combat assets. You can bet only the least defended target environments devoid of enemy fighters, SAM Missiles or just Anti-Aircraft Guns will be selected for those sorties.

  2. I think the author needs to proofread the numbers in this article. Glideslope is described as 5.2 percent and 13.2 degrees in the same sentence. Is it percent or degrees? Also, the F-35 is expensive, but I’m pretty sure it’s not $176 Billion per copy.

    • I think the third comma is a gremlin. I read the value as one hundred and seventy five million, nine hundred and eighty three thousand, nine hundred and forty nine currency units. Admittedly, even that’s a bit too high for the advertised fly away cost of $94 million to $122 million per each.

      • I think the comma is in the right place: “The pilot suffered minor injuries and the aircraft (comma) worth $175,983,949 (comma) became a debris field.

        (From the ‘net: “Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.”

  3. Well, it seems to me that the F-35 is a very expensive boondoggle. Single engine??? It was downhill from there. There must have been huge payoffs to the DOD to get this ‘airplane’ into the inventory. It’ll never be a frontline, dependable fighter.

    • Single engine aircraft are a risk, but if the plane can be maneuvered away from guns or missiles, that risk is reduced significantly. The benefits of one engine are lower fuel consumption and operational simplicity. These newer planes have so many advanced systems and powerplant monitoring/alert/warning screens, tones and voices, you can’t miss a malfunction.

    • RIGHT! Because the F-16 is a great twin-engined aircraft. Oh, no – wait! – its SINGLE-engined, and the US Air Force bought thousands of them, and still uses them, as do over 25 other countries’ Air Forces, world-wide.

  4. After $175,983,949 for that particular air frame ( remember, we always hear from the military service branch and manufacturer after a few more are delivered their cost per airplane is going down), no one knows who was actually flying the airplane. While the pilot dealt with a misaligned helmet, the auto portion of the approach called “speed hold” was active. Score one for the airplane and it’s systems flying the airplane…pilot zero.

    That would account for the flatter angle of attack during the approach 50kts above the recommended touch down speed. Score two for the airplane and it’s auto systems flying the airplane…zero for the pilot flying the airplane.

    Aircraft lands hot and flat, with the weight of the airplane not fully on its wheels. I wonder in all the helmet confusion, if he or the airplane actually flared? Was it really PIO or the airplane in “speed hold” approach mode that made the airplane start to bounce/oscillate up and down after touching down on all three vs a standard tail low, on the main’s landing attitude? But we do know both the pilot disagreed with the airplanes automation after rapid control inputs. And the airplane’s automation disagreed with the pilot’s inputs. Score zero for either airplane or pilot flying the airplane…we don’t know.

    Finally the pilot applies takeoff, afterburner induced power, hauls back on the stick, and counts to three. No joy for takeoff/go around attitude. Score three for the airplane and its auto systems flying the airplane…zero for the pilot.

    Pilot ejects. Score one for the pilot flying his seat…score four for the airplane flying the remaining pieces of the airframe until destruction. Airplane 4…pilot 1 in the whose flying the airplane box score

    I wonder if the computer programmers thought of this scenario when that portion of the computer program was written? I am sure we will never really know. Nice to know the seat worked as designed and the pilot is safe.

    Some say the airplane is not dependable. I would argue with a 4 to 1 decisive victory winning who is flying the airplane going to the airplane, it was dependable. It was dependable, doing what it was designed and programmed to do. In the light of all that automation, can we say the same thing of the pilot? I would say, dependable automation combined with programming not compatible with an apparent unplanned event such as a misaligned helmet, made a normally dependable pilot look questionable.

    Can you imagine what he was responding to in the heads up display during the approach at night into Eglin? That would make the Oshkosh Wednesday night fireworks display look pale in comparison. And all of this happening at 202 kts. A lot more to this story than we currently know. But in my mind, without a doubt, automation answered who was flying the airplane.

    • The F-35 FMC Dispatch Rates are dismal. Parts are hard to come by, and they’re not done testing the aircraft, so other issues will appear on the horizon. What is currently being dealt with are dozens of glitches that are defined as ‘Critical’ to resolve for the plane to be combat capable. Concurrency during the acquisition of military aircraft should never be approved, nor should open-ended contracts that allow costs to increase beyond acceptable levels. We must give knowledgeable people a voice in the process of developing and purchasing such aircraft. Mr. Sprey was quite prescient in his predictions about this plane. Mr. Wheeler was also an ardent critic of both the concept and the resulting aircraft.

      Back in the early days of the Space Shuttle, when the ALT (Approach and Landing Test) phase was underway, I heard from one of the Shuttle test pilots that the system would not be cost effective, and that the “You Call, We Haul” concept applied to the Shuttle’s commercial value was pure fantasy. Our taxes should not be wasted on such a misguided hubris.

    • I had a candid conversation with a General Officer acquaintance from my many years at Edwards about this airplane. He was in the SPO logistics chain and flew it. HE says it’s a POS. That’s all I need to know about it. I asked why they couldn’t have just built more F-22’s. He says that they saved the cost of “one engine” so they jammed it into the system on that basis. Huh?

      Beyond that, whoever in the USAF thinks the 20mm gun with ~200 rounds of ammo can replace an A-10 with well over 1,000 rounds of armor piercing 30mm ammo needs to have their heads examined. I’m betting there are a lot of grunts who’d like to have a little talk with that person(s), too.

      • If you talk to F-35 fans, in particular military pilots or Lockheed employees, they’ll regale you with official-sounding terms and superlatives about how the design is “Maturing” (No bugs have been worked out yet) and they’ll basically rehash information from the sales brochure. What they won’t do is discuss known issues that are preventing the planes from being flown, or components that are not functioning according to their expected capabilities. The helmet is especially troublesome, and the gun installed is glitch-ridden, and would be useless anyway due to its diminutive number of rounds. I would say the exercise which supposedly vindicated F-35 defenders was aptly named, because the data simply does not mirror reality:

        “Red Flag”.

      • Lockheed was smart (devious?) enough to put subcontractors in as many different congressional districts as possible, thus making it difficult for any Senator or Representative to attemp killing the plane when the costs started rising and problems persisted. The thought of using an F-35 to replace the A-10 as a ground support aircraft is laughable. Besides, as several have said, no commander is going to send an F-35 on a low level strafing run for fear of losing it. We have all seen pictures of a Wart Hog returning from a mission full of bullet holes and some parts shot off, but they still made it home. Try that with the F-35.

        • The entire F-35 concept–Jack of All Trades, Master of None–doomed the design from the start. The plane can’t dogfight, because its turning capability is nil. Some pilots poo poo that aspect, claiming they’ll just RADAR Identify a target, and Fox One them out of existence. According to Mr. Sprey, the BVR Missile Kill would just as likely be a Cessna, Airliner (Remember Iran…..) or Friendly Fire Casualty. The Close Air Support role is indeed laughable, mainly because the airframe cannot withstand the curtains of led which will arise from anti-aircraft guns, Stingers or even assault rifles. In addition, the means CAS pilots employ to spot targets entail tight turns, slower speeds, and Mark One Eyeball Target Acquisition Systems. The F-35 cannot possibly perform such maneuvers. Our taxes are played fast and loose by a congress that is influenced by weapons contractors in the manner you’ve described. It’s time to take a hard look at that cabal, and clean house of big spenders and wheeler dealers.