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Turbulence set off chain of events leading to last year’s F-35A crash

By Tim Vandenack - | Jul 31, 2023

Image supplied, U.S. Air Force

The F-35A involved in an Oct. 19, 2022, crash at Hill Air Force Base is shown in a simulated image before the mishap as it was preparing to land. The craft was destroyed but the pilot safely ejected.

The crash of an F-35A last year at Hill Air Force Base that destroyed the fighter jet occurred after the craft flew through turbulence caused by the airplane in front of it, according to a U.S. Air Force statement.

That set off a chain of events that left the pilot unable to properly control the airplane, leading him to safely eject. The Oct. 19, 2022, crash occurred on the grounds of Hill Air Force Base as the airplane, part of a four-ship formation, was attempting to land, and most of the debris was contained within the boundaries of the airfield.

Col. Kevin Lord, head of the board that investigated the incident, “found the mishap occurred due to air data system errors immediately prior to landing that caused the F-35A to depart controlled flight in which there was no opportunity to recover to controlled flight,” reads the statement. Lord “also found one significant contributing factor to be that the pilot did not increase landing spacing from preceding aircraft in accordance with wake turbulence procedures.”

The “mishap pilot,” or MP, sustained only minor injuries in the incident. “The MP was treated for minor injuries sustained in the ejection. Following the required tests and vital checks, the MP was released from the hospital that night,” reads the report into the incident.

The $166.3 million F-35A, part of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, was destroyed.

The four F-35A airplanes were finishing an “uneventful training sortie” that had brought them to Utah Test and Training Range airspace when the incident occurred, according to the report. As described in the report, the pilot of the airplane that crashed “failed to follow wake turbulence procedures” while landing, resulting in “a slight ‘burble’ (or rumbling) to his aircraft” caused by the F-35A in front.

“The bumpy air caused the F-35′s flight controls to register incorrect flight data, and the jet stopped responding to the pilot’s attempts at manual control,” reads an Air Force Times report on the incident. “The pilot tried to abort the landing and try again, but the jet responded by sharply banking to the left. Further attempts to right the aircraft failed, and the pilot safely ejected north of the base.”

The incident appears to be an anomaly. “The F-35 enterprise has over 600,000 flight hours and this is the first known occurrence where wake turbulence had this impact on the air data system,” reads the report, publicly released last Thursday.

Indeed, the Air Force Times cited a source saying the likelihood of a repeat is minimal. “As with any aircraft accident, we will incorporate the findings from this report as appropriate to improve processes and enhance flight safety across the Air Force,” an Air Combat Command spokesperson told the publication.

The report, meantime, lauded the capabilities of the F-35A. “The F-35A is the U.S. Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter. With its aerodynamic performance and advanced integrated avionics, the F-35A provides next-generation stealth, enhanced situational awareness and reduced vulnerability for the United States and allied nations,” it reads.

The Air Combat Command, part of the U.S. Air Force and headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, released the report.


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