The past year has been hard on the carrier aviation community.
Since November, three fighter jets — two of them highly advanced stealth aircraft — worth some $300 million have gone overboard due to accidents aboard aircraft carriers.
The string of mishaps shows how tricky it can be to operate an aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier.
The incidents began in the Mediterranean Sea in mid-November. The Royal Navy flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, was returning to the UK after its maiden operational deployment, during which it sailed to the Pacific and back.
During what was supposed to be a routine training flight under sunny Mediterranean skies, an F-35B Lighting II stealth fighter jet crashed, going into the water after it left the carrier’s deck.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth is a short takeoff, barrier arrested recovery carrier that has a ramp to help aircraft take off. A leaked video of the mishap shows the jet decelerating as it approaches the ramp — the worst possible time for that to happen.
Thankfully, the pilot managed to eject seconds before the F-35B hit the water.
An investigation found that the crew had forgotten to remove an engine blank — essentially a cover — which is meant to protect the engine from weather and debris when it isn’t operating.
With an estimated cost of roughly $100 million for each F-35B, this turned out to be an expensive engine blank.
“There are multiple people that are supposed to look the jet over before takeoff. To not catch the engine blank in the intake is just purely an oversight that shouldn’t ever happen,” said Tony Rich, a former US Marine sergeant who served as a mechanic on the AV-8B Harrier II, the predecessor to the F-35B.
“Like so many things, 999 times out of 1,000, you get away with it because someone had your back or someone saw it in time, but the 1,000th time” it will get you, Rich, now a news editor at Sandboxx News, told Insider.
The next mishap took place in the South China Sea in January. The pilot of a US Navy F-35C Lighting II stealth fighter jet appeared to misjudge his approach and hit the edge of the flight deck on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
The F-35C was recovered after a deep-salvage operation right under the nose of the Chinese Navy — but using a Chinese-built ship to lift the jet from 12,400 feet below the surface.
The deployment aboard the Vinson was a first for the F-35C, which costs roughly $100 million each, making it an expensive loss for the Pentagon.
As if in a good novel, the last in this string of mishaps took place back in the Mediterranean. On July 8, an F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard USS Harry S. Truman was blown off the ship after an unexpected storm caused heavy, rolling seas.
According to the Navy, one sailor was injured but is expected to recover fully.
The jet was recovered this month, but the incident is still under investigation. At the time of the mishap, the carrier was conducting an underway replenishment, a tricky operation in which a supply ship sails alongside a warship and pallets of supplies are sent across on cables.
“I’m sure things weren’t done perfectly,” Rich said of the F/A-18 mishap, noting that it was always possible that the jet had just returned to the deck or was being towed into position.
Some of the chains used to tie down jets on carrier decks “are ancient,” Rich added. “They break. It happens. Plus if it was blown but rolled on its wheels overboard (as opposed to rolled wing over wing), that would mean someone screwed up in terms of not building the brake pressure, which, honestly, happens all the time.”
Rich said that the mishap is similar to the British F-35B accident in the sense that it probably took “multiple people screwing up.”
‘If it doesn’t grow, it goes’
Like on any runway, debris of any kind is a big no-go on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck.
“A pebble or a tiny washer or nut is enough to bring down an entire aircraft,” Rich said, adding that the crew does a foreign object discovery walk, or FOD Walk, at the beginning and end of every shift.
Crews also monitor their work areas for any foreign objects and have to account for all tools, regardless of size, before and after each task and at the beginning and end of each shift. A missing wrench can ground an entire squadron for safety reasons.
Foreign objects don’t appear to have been involved in the recent mishaps, but there are other complicating factors that make life for naval aviators and crews that much harder. One of the most prominent in recent years has been heightened operational tempos.
“Operations and maintenance control are always battling to keep jets up so pilots can get the training they need. Quality assurance is always battling to make sure everything is done deliberately and by the book. Sometimes the pressure to maintain the flight schedule causes corners to get cut,” Rich said.
Combat operations — like those conducted by Navy and Marine pilots in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria — can lead to higher operational tempos, as can strict training regimes.
Whatever the cause, higher tempos can lead to fatigue and complacency. Fatigue has been cited as a cause for fatal incidents involving US Navy ships.
The maintainers and pilots chosen for deployments are generally more experienced, Rich said, “so a lot of time I’d say it’s just fatigue and complacence that can get the best of a crew, just like any other job.”
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
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