Battleland

Death in 11 Seconds: When Headlights Become Stars

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Air Force Captain Francis Imlay checks out his F-15E in August 2011.

You can fly the nation’s hottest warplanes flawlessly for 1,462.6 hours. But modern warfare is unforgiving. So in your final 11 seconds of flight, and life – when night and dust storms blind you, turn headlights into stars, and a radio tower that looks upside down is really right-side up – you can make a deadly mistake.

A riveting accident report just released by the U.S. Air Force tells the tale of the final moment’s of Captain Francis Imlay’s life this past March 28, at the base of a radio tower near some unnamed air base in an unnamed southwestern Asian land. In that instant, years of training failed amid a moment’s inattention wrapped inside a maelstrom of misleading visual clues.

They snowballed into wrong decisions that had an F-15 fighter flying — upside down – barely 88 feet above a Middle Eastern desert at 405 miles an hour.

Only at the last possible instant of the 75-minute flight did Imlay’s backseat weapon systems officer realize they were in mortal danger because the pilot seated in front of him was obviously disoriented. So the backseater pulled the ejection lever for both of them, in a desperate bid to save their lives.

It’s a jarring snapshot of how fast things can go wrong inside the F-15E Strike Eagle, one of the Air Force’s most powerful, and deadly, warplanes.

Imlay’s final mission began as part of a war game involving 34 other warplanes somewhere – the Air Force won’t say where – over southwest Asia. After successfully participating in the exercise, Imlay and his backseat weapons systems officer began to return to their unidentified base as night fell.

Once ground controllers told Ismay he could descend to 2,000 feet in preparation for landing, trouble began. Instead of monitoring his electronic attitude director indicator – which would have told him which end was up — Air Force investigators believe he was preoccupied monitoring other instruments inside the cockpit.

When he suddenly he looked outside the cockpit, he was surprised by what he saw.

Here are excerpts from the official Air Force investigation:

As the MA [mishap aircraft] passed through 3,100 feet MSL [mean sea level], the MP [mishap pilot] pulsed the stick backwards and forwards. This caused a quick pitch up and then a pitch down of the MA. The MP simultaneously pushed the throttles forward from less than full power to full afterburner for two seconds…

Witnesses described the night of the mishap as very dark with no discernable horizon. Additionally, the MP was briefed that the recovery arc would be dark with no cultural lighting. Of note, there were no discussions pertaining to highway lights or radio towers… 

The MP then aggressively pushed the stick forward, inducing -2.6 gravitational force (g) on the MA. Next, the MP expressed verbal concern about what was going on around him, pulled the throttles back to less than full power and rolled the MA left, dwelling about one second in approximately 70 degrees of left bank and 20 degrees nose low…

The MP became spatially disoriented…due to a visual illusion. As the MC [mishap crew] was flying the approach back to base, the MP may have focused on lights that appeared from a nearby radio tower array and highway. In an environment devoid of traditional visual cues, most notably the lack of a true horizon, the MP may have relied solely on the lights and incorrectly inverted the MA…

The MWSO [Mishap Weapon Systems Officer] was not sure which way the jet rolled and did not tell the MP to recover because he worried that any input on his part might have made the situation worse…

The mishap occurred at an isolated radio tower array 18 NM west, southwest of the base. This array forms a horseshoe shape and consists of 31 primary towers. These towers are of varying heights with the tallest being 377 feet in height. Each radio tower contains one or two closely spaced steady red lights at the top of the tower and two to four steady red lights at the midpoint…

The MP expressed further concern as he continued to roll another 110 degrees left to a fully inverted position approximately 1,800 feet AGL [above ground level] and 25 degrees nose low. At that point, the MWSO believed that the MP did not know which way was up…

 There is one distinct “Y” shaped tower 1,403.31 meters to the north of the main tower array…

As the MA descended…the lighting from the radio towers and highway traffic would have come into the MP’s view. At that moment, the MP was looking down to manipulate [his instruments] and therefore, was unaware of the approaching lights.

When the MP looked up, the lights from the main tower array would have already been under the MA’s nose and only the “Y” shaped tower would have been in his focal view. The MP’s verbal concerns indicate he looked up…and became disoriented by the cultural lighting…

There is a heavily trafficked, lighted highway south of the radio tower array. There are palm trees planted at a set interval along the side of the highway, which causes a flickering image at night due to the headlights of passing vehicles. In addition, many of the trucks commuting along this road have flashing yellow lights on the top of their freight…

Due to the location of the MA, the highway lights would have been recognized by the MP’s peripheral vision. Peripheral vision has a strong influence on an individual’s orientation in relation to the environment. In other words, it plays a big part in determining which way is “up.”

Prior to this event at a higher altitude, the MP would have seen stars above him in his peripheral vision, thereby verifying the feeling that stars were “up.” The flickering lights of the highway could have been interpreted by the MP as twinkling stars.

If the MP interpreted the flickering lights below him as stars, it would have been spatially disorienting since it conflicted with what he expected…

…the MP may have utilized his FLIR [forward-looking infrared radar] due to the environmental conditions. This may have allowed the MP to correctly identify the light in front of him as a tower…

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This radio tower in the MP’s focal view would have been an unfamiliar shape, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. A typical radio tower would be the opposite shape, with a wide base and a narrow top. Instead of realizing he was viewing an unusual “Y” shaped tower, the MP may have thought he was viewing a “typical” tower that appeared like a “Y” because he was inverted…

The MWSO grabbed the controls and rolled the MA left towards a near wings-level position.

The ground collision warning system went off at that time, giving the MC an arrow on all of the displays, including the HUD [heads-up display], indicating the fastest way to pull to the horizon. The MWSO then pulled 11 g while rolling left to wings-level…

The final frame of HUD footage on the DVRS [digital video recording system] displayed the MA had a positive vector away from the ground and a radar altimeter reading of 88 feet above ground level (AGL).

As the MWSO rolled the MA to nearly level flight, he initiated ejection for the MC at 16:03:23Z.

The MA airspeed read 352 knots in the last frame of the HUD video.

Had a radio tower not been in the flight path, the MA would have recovered prior to impacting the ground. The time from the first abrupt maneuver and verbal concern by the MP to the time of ejection was approximately 11 seconds…

The MWSO initiated ejection by pulling the aft cockpit ejection handles 1.2 seconds before the MA hit the radio tower, and the MP did not pull the front cockpit ejection handles. Once the handles are pulled, during a sequenced ejection, the aft seat departs after approximately 0.4 seconds then the front seat departs 0.4 seconds later (for a total of approximately 0.8 seconds).

All egress system components were in the process of performing normally. The canopy separated from the MA and the aft seat performed a normal Mode II ejection. The front seat had begun the ejection process and the rocket motor was firing normally until the seat impacted the radio tower, which interrupted the ejection sequence…

The MA struck a 377-foot tall radio tower and crashed approximately 0.5 NM northeast of the tower. Based on the damage to the MA, it appears the right wing of the MA struck the radio tower.

Ismay, 31, died of “multiple injuries.” His unnamed backseater escaped with only minor injuries, and was able to walk once his parachute got him on the ground.

Imlay was assigned to the 391st Fighter Squadron’s “Bold Tigers” at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. He came from an Air Force family. His father, Francis, is a retired chief master sergeant and former 60th Maintenance Group chief at Travis Air Force Base. He was born at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, graduated from Lakenheath, England, High School, near the U.S. Air Force Base there. He attended Auburn University, as part of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, where he was named the distinguished graduate. In addition to his father and mother, Kum Sun, he is survived by his wife, Tami, and their children, Isaac and Lyndis.

“Captain Imlay is a tremendous fighter pilot, assigned to out 391st Fighter Squadron ‘Bold Tigers,’ who played a vital role in supporting Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Colonel Ron Buckley, 366th Fighter Wing commander. “As a member of one of the world’s most advanced and highly skilled fighter squadrons, `Piston’ had an enormous impact.”

He is one of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops who have given their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom, focused on the war in Afghanistan but also included other terror-hunting military missions in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Donations for the education of his two children can be made to the Air Warrior Courage Foundation.

 

2 comments
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mahboob_1948
mahboob_1948

Better to trust the electronics then ones own sight.


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