F-35 crash in May was perfect storm of faulty tech and pilot fatigue, Air Force says

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An F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, releases an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile at a QF-16 target while performing a loft maneuver during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 20, 2018.

An F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, releases an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile at a QF-16 target while performing a loft maneuver during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 20, 2018.

EGLIN AFB — A distracted pilot and a technical issue with the aircraft contributed to the May crash of an F-35 Lightning II fighter jet at Eglin Air Force Base, according to an Air Force Accident Investigation Board (AIB) report on the incident.

The pilot of the aircraft, from the 58th Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, safely ejected from the jet as it landed on Runway 30 at the base, but did not sustain life-threatening injuries. 

The pilot is not identified in the report, nor has the pilot been previously identified by Eglin AFB officials. According to the AIB report, the pilot had nearly 138 hours of flight time in the F-35A, including slightly more than 53 instructor hours and eight night flying hours.

According to the 32-page report, the pilot landed the F-35 too fast, at too shallow an angle. As the aircraft touched down, it began to bounce, and the pilot attempted to get the aircraft off the runway to attempt another landing.

"After being unsuccessful in the attempt to go-around after multiple and progressively worsening bounces," the report states, "the (pilot) released the stick to eject." The F-35 was on the runway for about five seconds, and had traveled 4,600 feet down the runway, before the pilot ejected, according to the report.

The F-35, valued at $176 million, "rolled, caught fire, and was completely destroyed," according to the AIB report.

Related: The Air Force has averaged one aircraft mishap every week since the beginning of May

The primary factors contributing to the crash, according to the report's executive summary, were the fast approach to the runway, and the aircraft's tail somehow reacting contrarily to the pilot's commands.

Also contributing to the crash, the summary notes, were a misalignment of the pilot's helmet-mounted display of flight data, a lack of knowledge on the pilot's part of how the flight control systems operated, and the pilot's "cognitive degradation due to fatigue ... ."

The crash occurred shortly before 9:30 p.m. on May 19, at the end of an air combat training mission involving two F-35s flying against two aggressor aircraft. The pilot of the crashed aircraft was serving as an instructor for the pilot in the other F-35.

The "human factors analysis" section of the AIB report includes significant background regarding situations that may have been distracting to the pilot, and may have contributed to the crash.

According to that section of the report, the pilot likely was distracted by a number of issues, including the fact that he was "a contact of a contact" of someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. If he were to test positive, the report noted, he "would be quarantined at home pending his own test result, which would cause operational and logistical disruption."

Also according to that section of the report, changes in the nature of the mission — the pilot was originally scheduled to fly one of the aggressor aircraft, and not to serve as an instructor — and the fact that the mission was conducted at night, may have affected the pilot's performance.

"According to the (pilot) and other witnesses, landing an F-35 at nighttime is not a mundane task," the report notes, "and is more difficult than a nighttime ILS (Instrument Landing System) landing in some (older) fighter aircraft ... ." The pilot involved in the crash had previously flown the F-15.

Beyond the specifics of the May crash, the AIB report also addresses the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on air missions.

"The pandemic has significant, immeasurable impacts on infrastructure, logistics, planning, and execution of the mission," the report reads. "Week on-week off, or split-operations, has a deleterious effect on unit cohesion and flying operations. As an example, it makes proper pilot meetings, such as phase briefs prior to the start of night flying, impossible in the conventional sense. It relies on passive, disconcerted methods by which to pass critical information, as there are no physical all-pilot or instructor pilot meetings."

Also with regard to the ongoing pandemic, the report notes that "(i)ndividuals with perceived elderly, ill, or otherwise susceptible family members in the house, such as a newly pregnant wife, maintain a constant degree of vigilance and skepticism at work ... ."

"The impact of this epidemic on flying operations, while impossible to quantify, cannot be overstated," the report contends.

©2020 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.