Pilot Error

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Air Force photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson

The F-22 crash site located approximately 100 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska, November 2010

The Air Force released a pair of probes into high-profile airplane accidents last week. Both play peek-a-boo with that phrase aviators hate: pilot error.

The first blames an F-22 pilot for crashing as he apparently – and vainly – struggled to breathe after his primary oxygen system shut down. The second probed an F-15 crash during the Libyan war triggered when the pilot flew momentarily outside of the aircraft’s approved “flight envelope” – that lengthy list of speeds, directions, angles, weights, centers of gravity and other characteristics that define safe flight.

The bottom line for that November 2010 fatal crash of an F-22 fighter in Alaska? The investigating officer concludes:

By clear and convincing evidence, I find the cause of the mishap was the MP’s [mishap pilot’s] failure to recognize and initiate a timely dive recovery due to channelized attention, breakdown of visual scan and unrecognized spatial disorientation.

Pilot error, in other words.

Air Force photo

The second probe investigated the March crash of an F-15E during a bombing run against Libyan targets (both crew members survived). The IO concludes:

I found by clear and convincing evidence that the cause of the mishap was the MA’s [mishap aircraft’s] sudden departure from controlled flight during a combat egress maneuver when the mishap pilot (MP) momentarily exceeded aircraft controllability performance parameters… resulting in the MA’s sudden departure from controlled flight and entered an unrecoverable spin.

Pilot error, in other words. The investigator said three other factors may have played a role in the crash, but his bottom line is clear: the crash happened because “the mishap pilot (MP) momentarily exceeded aircraft controllability performance parameters.”

Yet, perplexingly, he told Stars and Stripes he didn’t believe the pilot was at fault. “No. I don’t think so,” he told the military newspaper. “I didn’t see that.” Hmm…

This is the vexing problem of assigning responsibility when a multi-million aircraft, flown by million-dollar pilots, crashes. If there’s not a slam-dunk reason to blame a piece of hardware, the military tends to blame the pilot. At least in the official written report.

That’s especially true if the pilot is no longer around to defend him or herself. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., has been fighting for years to get the Marines to stop blaming the two pilots who were flying a V-22 tilt-rotor when it crashed in Arizona in 2000, killing all 19 aboard.

More than 25 years ago, I stumbled upon the first-ever pilot to survive a rash of UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopter crashes that had killed hundreds of U.S. military personnel dating back to Vietnam. So long as everyone aboard the choppers died, there was no real way to challenge the helicopter builder’s – and Army’s – claims that there was nothing wrong with the helicopter’s design.

It took that survivor, telling his tale publicly, to prod the Army to fix the aircraft. Since then, there have been no more deaths due to the design problem that almost killed him. Too bad it was too late for the nearly 250 who weren’t as lucky. Let’s hope this is one pattern that doesn’t repeat itself.