As US Navy Prepares Recovery Operations for crashed F-35C Lightning II, Japan Coast Guard Issues Salvage Warning in South China Sea

Pilot Error After ‘Sierra Hotel Break’ behind last year South China Sea F-35C Lightning II Crash

By Dario Leone
Feb 22 2023
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An F-35C Joint Strike Fighter belonging to Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) “Argonauts” was lost on Jan. 24, 2022 due to a mistake by the fighter pilot during landing aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson.

An F-35C Joint Strike Fighter belonging to Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) “Argonauts” was lost on Jan. 24, 2022 due to a mistake by the fighter pilot during landing aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). The investigation into the incident determined that the subsequent ramp strike resulted not only in the loss of the Lightning II but also injured six sailors (five sailors on the deck of the aircraft carrier and the pilot that was hurt ejecting from the fighter).

The junior officer did not realize a built-in aid that helped control the plane’s power during landing was switched off after he performed a specialized landing approach to Vinson for the first time. According to the investigation obtained by USNI News (CLICK HERE to read the investigation) the F-35C made an underpowered approach to the carrier.

As a result of the wrong approach, the aircraft’s nose struck the back of the flight deck, the landing gear collapsed and the F-35C (designated JASON 406) fell into the South China Sea.

“The mishap pilot (MP) attempted an expedited recovery breaking overhead the carrier, an approved and common maneuver, but the MP had never performed this maneuver before, and it reduced the amount of time to configure the aircraft and conduct landing checks,” said US 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Karl Thomas in his June 3rd endorsement. “As a result of the compressed timeline and the MP’s lack of familiarity with the maneuver, the MP lost situational awareness and failed to complete his landing checklist. Specifically, the MP remained in manual mode when he should have been (and thought he was) in an automated command mode designed to reduce pilot workload during landings.”

The ramp strike followed a routine mission of just under four hours for the junior officer pilot and his wingman.

The investigation found that the F-35C pilot, who was on his first deployment, had 650.3 total flight hours with 370.7 in the F-35C, was well rested, mentally fit and among the top performing junior officers in Carrier Air Wing 2.

The pilot wanted to attempt a landing maneuver popularly known as a Sierra Hotel or “Shit Hot” break for the first time, the investigation says.

During a Sierra Hotel Break the aircraft uses G-forces to decelerate over the course of a 360-degree turn, dropping the landing gear when the aircraft is below landing gear transition speed. When breaking aft of the ship or overhead the ship, a pilot has a reduced amount of time to configure the aircraft and conduct landing checks.

The F-35C started the first turn of the break at the rear of the carrier just over the landing signal officer platform.

The investigation says that the pilot “did not want to be too fast during the break and he remembered his airspeed being 370-390 knots as he initiated a break over the LSO platform. He called ‘Burner’ on the auxiliary radio, informing his wingman that he was selecting afterburner, and then initiated his break, deselecting afterburner after a few seconds.”

According to USNI News, after the turn, the pilot didn’t engage the two landing assist tools on the fighter, the Approach Power Compensation Mode (APC) and the Delta Flight Path (DFP), which automate some of the pilot’s necessary tasks for landing on an aircraft carrier. When activated, DFP automatically adjusts the throttle to keep the aircraft on correct glide scope to land on a carrier, while the APC maintains the fighter’s angle of attack.

JASON 406 entered the final approach to the carrier, and was moving too slowly.

“The [pilot] realized that the jet was extremely underpowered as the jet became slow and continued to descend (settle),” the investigation says. “At this moment, [the pilot] manually pushed the throttle to military power and then went to maximum afterburner once he realized that the airplane was in a perilous state, failing to climb.”

Six seconds later, the LSO told the pilot the speed was too low. A second later the LSO told the pilot to wave off and hit the afterburners.

Then the F-35C struck the rear of the carrier, skid on its belly and rotated 180 degrees while heading down the angled deck of Vinson. The Lightning II slid across the deck at about 95 miles per hour before falling off the edge.

A Navy spokesman told USNI News that, due to the crash, the pilot has been removed from flight status but is still in the service (even though investigators determined that “the error was not conducted in a reckless manner nor with malicious intent”).

Moreover, investigators recommended that aviators stop performing Sierra Hotel Breaks, that policy require F-35C pilots to always use Approach Power Compensation Mode (APC)/Delta Flight Path (DFP) throttle assists and that heads-up displays include indicator lights showing when flight aids are activated.

As already reported, the US Navy recovered JASON 406 in February 2022 when it was plucked from the floor of the South China Sea with Navy personnel aboard the offshore vessel DSCV Picasso, a vessel designed for deep diving and salvage for offshore industries.

Recovery of the F-35C eased fears that China or Russia could seize the aircraft, either to replicate the technology aboard or discover ways to defeat the Joint Strike Fighter family of aircraft.

As US Navy Prepares Recovery Operations for crashed F-35C Lightning II, Japan Coast Guard Issues Salvage Warning in South China Sea
The F-35C after the crash occurred on Jan. 24, 2022. The aircraft landed in the water right side up and largely intact before sinking.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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