Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alaska F-22 Crash: Successful Ejection Doesn't Always Ensure Pilot Survival; Pilot Now Identified As Capt. Jeffrey Haney

Update November 19th: 3rd Wing Commander Col. Jack McMullen announced that Capt. Jeffrey Haney died in the crash. Evidence at the scene of the crash, including pieces of Capt. Haney's flight suit and other personal effects, led investigators to that conclusion. Part of the aircraft's ejection seat were also found at the scene. See updated post HERE.

The missing pilot in the F-22 crash has now been identified in the Jackson (MI) Citizen-Patriot as Capt. Jeffrey A. Haney. He is married with two daughters. He has served in the U.S. Air Force for five years, is described as one of the Air Force's best pilots, and has apparently been considered for flight instructor duty. A separate Citizen-Patriot article gives more extensive details about Haney's background; in 2002, as a member of Western Michigan University’s precision flight team, he helped the Sky Broncos defeat the Air Force’s precision flight team in a regional competition

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force continues to scour the area east-southeast of Caswell, Alaska where an F-22 fighter crashed on November 16th, 2010 in an effort to locate and rescue the pilot. Pararescuers who landed on the crash site found no trace of the pilot, thus reinforcing the possibility that he ejected successfully. USAF authorities have already noted that pilots are equipped with an Arctic cold-weather survival package which deploys upon ejection that they can use to increase the chances of surviving in a cold-weather environment. The crash site is now described as a crater in a drainage between two mountains, and has partially filled with water

One commenter to the Anchorage Daily News story provides more detail on the ejection seat.

flybynight Today 09:21 AM
This F-22 was equipped with a Goodrich Advanced Concept Ejection Seat, or ACES II, which is the most successful aircrew escape system in U.S. Air Force history and is credited with saving more than 600 lives since it was introduced in 1978.

SIIIS and ACES II ejection seats are the only seats in the world with active pitch stabilization which provides consistent 0-0 recovery capability. Each are made by Goodrich. ACES II is a rugged, lightweight, easy-to-maintain ejection seat. It provides optimum performance across an escape envelope from 0 to 600 knots equivalent airspeed and 0 to 60,000 feet altitude, and is designed to safely eject a crew member under zero-zero conditions. At low speed, the ACES II® produces a parachute 1.8 seconds after initiation. A unique gyro-controlled system, called Stability Package or STAPAC, stabilizes the seat during ejection. It also carries a survival kit.

Because of the U.S. Air Force's emphasis upon safety and professionalism, much of the public has acquired the image of an aircraft ejection being a painless and brainless process. Not so; there are many variables, including aircraft attitude, airspeed, weather conditions, adjacent terrain, the condition of the pilot, slipstream, and the possible presence of fire and/or smoke.

So while we hope for the best, we have to start preparing ourselves for the worst. Most troubling is the fact that, nearly 36 hours after the crash, rescuers have not yet been able to home in on any rescue beacon deployed by the pilot. With this in mind, I see three possible likely outcomes:

(1). Successful Ejection, Successful Landing, Pilot Alive And Not Critically Injured: This remains a good possibility. In this case, there is a possibility that the pilot's rescue beacon is not working.

(2). Successful Ejection, Pilot Incapacitated Upon Landing: In this case, the pilot ejected successfully, but due to parachute malfunction, may have got hung up in a tree or landed hard on the ground. He could be unconscious and unable to activate the rescue beacon. The strong gusty surface winds reported at nearby stations at the time could have compromised the ability of the pilot to steer the parachute.

(3). Successful Ejection, Pilot Does Not Survive The Ejection: In this case, the pilot ejected successfully, but it became traumatic and the pilot died immediately.

An article in Aviation Week explains how the ejection process itself could become fatal, citing the March 25th, 2009 crash of an F-22 out of Edwards AFB, CA. The pilot almost lost consciousness during a high-g maneuver; because of inadequate anti-g straining, the pilot suffered “almost” g-induced loss of consciousness (A-LOC) and lost situational awareness. But although he did not lose consciousness, the pilot's attention became focused on fighting off the symptoms of A-LOC. Partially incapacitated at that point, the pilot failed to pull the aircraft out of a steep, high-speed dive in sufficient time to recover. Although the pilot still had the presence of mind to eject, he was killed immediately by windblast forces when he ejected 765 knots equivalent airspeed, roughly 150 knots above the Aces II ejection seat’s design limits.

It should be noted that in this case, the Edwards AFB pilot was deliberately stressing the aircraft in a series of controlled flight tests. The pilot executed three high-speed, high-g test runs to evaluate how opening the side weapons bay affects aircraft performance. The tests involved rolling inverted at Mach 1.6 and 25,000 feet, performing half of a split-S maneuver, then rolling upright and pulling out of the dive. The problem occurred during the third and final test.

It has not yet been revealed whether the Elmendorf pilot was engaged in similar testing. USAF officials do not indicate this to be so. We can be certain that the U.S. Air Force will exert every possible effort to locate the pilot, not only because it's the right thing to do, but in the event of an unfavorable outcome, the lessons learned from the mishap investigation could result in safety modifications applied to the remainder of the F-22 fleet. Indeed, hundreds of Air Force and Army personnel are reportedly helping with the huge logistical operation of a ground search for the pilot, and the Alaska Department of Transportation is plowing roads in the area to help get equipment to the area as the search moves into a more long-term phase. The latest National Weather Service information, to include observation trends from Cantwell, Healy, Denali NP, and Talkeetna, as well as the forecast for Talkeetna, indicates that weather conditions should remain reasonably favorable for the search, with cloud layers down as low as 8,000 ft. (obscuring higher mountains), little to no precipitation, light winds, daytime temperatures now rising into the mid-20s Fahrenheit, and nighttime temperatures dropping to 0F to -5F. The increase in cloud cover restricts nighttime cooling.

Update 8:35 P.M: Unexpected and unforecast poor weather is now hindering the search. Two military convoys heading north from Anchorage with troops and equipment ran into driving snow, slowing them enough that the searchers had to hunker down in Cantwell for the night. They had planned to set up a base camp Friday at a closed wilderness lodge about 60 miles east of Cantwell on the Denali Highway. Fairbanks weather radar indicates the area is on the extreme southern edge of a quasi-stationary band of light snow centered in the Fairbanks area. There are signs that conditions may improve. Just to the south of the area, conditions are VFR with no precip.

Update November 19th 1:30 P.M: Weather improves, VFR conditions now prevail. Search party has reached the backcountry lodge 60 miles east of Cantwell where they hope to set up a base camp. They hope to get to the crash site south of the road later today

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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