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The Risk of Flight – Training Accidents

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Guest post by fighter pilot and editor of Tally One Rob Burgon

When was the last time you remember hearing about a U.S. fighter aircraft being lost in air-to-air combat?  How about the last time one of our fighters was shot down in combat?  I bet you’d really have to dig for the answer to the former question, and you would still have to sit and think about the latter.  Ok, how about this one: When was the last time you heard about one of our jets going down during a training mission?  Unfortunately that is a pretty easy one to answer.

Matthew J. LaCourse
Matthew J. LaCourse

The US Armed Forces have lost a number of aircraft and aircrew in the 2014 training arena.  A USAF F-15 crashed in England this past October.  Fortunately, the pilot ejected to safety.  The most recent accident involved an F-16 flown out of Tyndall AFB in Florida and took the life of retired Lt Col and civilian USAF pilot, Matthew J. LaCourse.  You may have heard about the loss of an F-16 off the coast of Virginia in Aug 2013.  Two Vipers collided in mid-air during a night training sortie.  Both pilots were fine – one brought his jet back, the other ejected and was picked up by the outstanding men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard (see below).  So why is it that we keep having these accidents, some of which involve the loss of both life and aircraft? US Coast Guard Rescue of Ejected F-16 Pilot (Aug 2013) I won’t pretend to know the cause of every accident, and I will never “armchair quarterback” any of these mishaps.  In this light I will outline several risks that military pilots face each time they take to the skies and how we work to minimize those risks.  With so many moving parts and pieces involved in a combat training scenario, it is impossible to eliminate risk altogether – all we can do is pray that when an accident happens, the outcome is as favorable as it was for the 2013 Viper driver in the video above who was plucked from the ocean by the Coast Guard.

Risks Associated with Air Combat Training (ACT)

The biggest risk to life and aircraft when it comes to air-to-air combat training is a mid-air collision.  An ACT mission for air-to-air fighters consists primarily of intercepts.  An intercept takes place when an airborne target is found, identified, and pursued in order to obtain a firing solution and employ ordinance.  (Depending on the mission, the requirement to employ ordinance may not be relevant, but the intercept is usually taken to a weapon engagement zone – or WEZ – even if the intent to fire is not present.) The intercept is typically initiated from a distance beyond visual range (BVR) with the fighter and the target converging at some angle.  The interceptor has to use every advantage he can to arrive in a WEZ quickly and preferably without being detected.  This usually means having to point your aircraft’s flight path to where the target is headed.  We call this aiming “collision antenna train angle”, or CATA.  A CATA intercept allows you to take advantage of geometry to arrive at the same point in space your target occupies.  As the name implies, if both you and the target do nothing during the CATA intercept, you will collide – so the end game portion of the intercept requires some maneuvering so as not to hit the other aircraft and to end up in a position of advantage.  Add into the mix potential task saturation and channelized attention from working the sensors on your aircraft, talking on the radio, and trying to remember the ROE associated with potentially engaging your target and you have a pretty good recipe for disaster.

F-14 in flight

The greatest risk for air-to-ground training (and still a risk for air-to-air players!) is controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).  The training accidents involving CFIT I have read about typically involve someone being heads down working a targeting pod or something of that nature while either maneuvering aggressively or while experiencing spatial disorientationSpatial disorientation is a huge player in night accidents – NVGs don’t turn night into day, and I can tell you from personal experience they can be next to worthless when pulling G’s due to the drooping and oscillations that are inherent in pulling G’s while wearing several pounds of equipment on your cranium!

Risk Mitigation Measures

Of course these aren’t the only risks associated with training, but they are the main reasons we lose aircraft during ACT missions.  I am continually impressed with how seriously the Air Force approaches the assumption of risk.  Every effort is made to mitigate risk beginning with mission planning. During the mission planning phase of a large force exercise (LFE), altitude deconfliction blocks are painstakingly carved out and assigned.  Choke points are identified (e.g. tanker tracks, converging strike routes, etc.) and plans are hatched to improve aircraft flow through them. On the day of the mission, every participant is briefed ad nauseam on standard air-to-air training rules (TRs) found in AFI 11-214…the training safety bible of the fighter pilot.  An example of a TR is that all pilots will cease pure pursuit, head-on missile attacks by 9,000 feet and a safety “bubble” of 500 feet will be established around each aircraft through which NO ONE may pass.  The briefing also includes the detailed deconfliction plan coordinated during the mission planning. In the air, every player has the option to call “Knock It Off” if they feel safety of flight is, or is about to be compromised.  When a “Knock It Off” is called, everyone acknowledges, ceases tactical maneuvering, and clears their flight path while ensuring they are established in their assigned altitude block. In addition to the mission-specific safety measures, every USAF pilot is required to attend quarterly safety meetings during which recent training mishaps are reviewed and discussed.  We also have to attend an annual cockpit/crew resource management class that reminds us of all the resources at our disposal to help increase situational awareness and handle non-standard situations.

Mig-29 mid-air collision

Will we ever be completely rid of training accidents?  Probably not, but I believe training scenarios get safer every day as we learn from past mistakes, as we think ahead to potential areas of risk, and as we execute pristinely in accordance with the TR’s (training rules). See Mom?  My job isn’t that dangerous!

By Tally One Chief Editor Rob Burgon (with minor edits by GFM).