Is There Ever Such a Thing as a “Good Deal Cross Country?”

BY LT ROBERT GRANT

Directing

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Caleb Swaim directs an F-35C Lightning II assigned to the Grim Reapers of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 101 on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Wilbur/Released)

Veteran’s Day 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island’s founding. To celebrate, the base hosted a special Veteran’s Day event and requested a national anthem flyover from the tenant commands of NAS Lemoore. As a relatively new F-35C pilot and lover of all things American, I jumped at the opportunity to lead our executive officer (XO) down to NAS North Island and perform the flyover. We were to fly down on a Thursday evening, perform the flyover on Saturday, and return to base early Monday morning. We recognized and thoroughly briefed the Operational Risk Management (ORM) associated with our good deal: “get-there” and “get-home”, cross-country and unfamiliar airfield operations with short runways, lack of full maintenance support, and finally the flyover itself.

The event came at a busy time for our command. Strike Fighter Squadron ONE TWO FIVE (VFA-125) was preparing to embark onboard USS Abraham Lincon (CVN 72) to be the first-ever fleet aviators performing day and night Carrier Qualifications (CQ) in the F-35C. The F-35C is still in the development phase, therefore we fly low rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft. Not all of those aircraft have the modifications required to perform field carrier landing practice (FCLP) or CQ. Due to our flyover not being an

operational necessity, we were assigned to fly down two of our “older” aircraft (i.e. jets that would not impact FCLP operations if we got stuck down in San Diego).

Thursday, the day we were to fly down to San Diego, our assigned aircraft were unavailable due to maintenance requirements. We were given two of the CQ aircraft, (411 and 412). We expected to return to Lemoore early Monday morning so as not to impact CQ workups.

My aircraft (412) had a clean maintenance record, but the XO’s (411) had been failing the Vehicle Systems Built-In Test (VS BIT). The VS BIT is aptly named; it tests all of the aircraft’s flight critical systems, ensuring it is safe for flight. The jet must pass the VS BIT both before and after flight in order to be deemed “up.” If the aircraft fails the VS BIT, we perform a “cold iron,” essentially turning the entire jet off and then back on again. This allows the computers in the F-35C to reset, and this will normally clear erroneous faults. For a couple weeks, 411 required a post-flight cold iron in order to pass the VS BIT and call the aircraft “up.” The jet had been setting Health Reporting Codes (HRCs) for a hydraulic issue almost every flight, but maintenance could not find anything wrong with the aircraft. The aircraft was returned to service following each cold iron and subsequent successful VS BIT.

Launching out of Lemoore, I raised the landing gear and promptly heard an alarming sound. Checking my Integrated Cautions and Warnings (ICAWs) and Flight Control Systems (FCS) pages, my aircraft had a FCS SURFACE DEGD ICAW – the ICAW was due to a failed actuator in the left Trailing Edge Flap (TEF). I set the autopilot, pulled out my Flight Checklist (FCL), completed the steps indicated, and the ICAW cleared.

With no other indications, I radioed my XO and we opted to continue the short flight down to San Diego, assuming the ICAW was a transient fault or sensor issue. Unfortunately, when I put the landing gear back down at North Island, the caution asserted again. This time it would not clear. The TEFs in the F-35C are double redundant (they have two actuators), so the surface was still functioning but had lost redundancy. The FCL had no applicable steps for landing other than “Land as soon as practical,” so I continued my approach turn and rolled to an uneventful full stop at North Island. Once parked, I communicated my issue to our small maintenance catch crew, and we troubleshot the issue unsuccessfully. The jet was down and would end up remaining at North Island for a week while they fixed it. In the end, maintenance discovered that a wire leading to the actuator was chafed and was shorting out with each cycle of the landing gear, asserting the ICAW. The bracket that held the wiring harness had been installed backwards at a previous inspection. While I was troubleshooting 412’s issue, the XO in 411 performed a Cold Iron to clear yet another hydraulic related VS BIT No-Go in that aircraft. We planned to “flex” to use 411 for the flyover on Saturday vice 412.

The flyover went off without a hitch. We worked together to nail the timing to the National Anthem, and as I landed I felt very good about our execution of a successful evolution. Only slightly dampening my positive mood was the pesky VS BIT No-Go before shutdown, prompting me to execute yet another Cold Iron in order to clear the ICAW.

For the return to base on Monday morning, the XO directed me to fly 411 back to Lemoore so that it could be used later in the day for FCLPs. At the time we still thought 412 might be fixable, so he stayed behind to fly it back in the event it was ready that day. Having already mitigated the numerous risks previously mentioned, I felt good about the easy 30-minute flight back to Lemoore. I started the jet up at 0600 local for a 0630 launch. Lemoore didn’t open until 0730, but NASNI closed at 0700, so I had a narrow window in which to takeoff.

Luckily, the jet started with no issues, and I rolled down the runway right at 0630. I flew at max endurance back to Lemoore to preserve fuel since I knew I would have to hold prior to landing. Of note, the runways at North Island are slightly short for F-35C operations. We light-loaded the jets to mitigate the risk of a high-speed abort, but that meant less fuel available once in-flight.

As expected, there was no Automatic Terminal Information Service broadcast and no one on the radios at the Master Jet Base until exactly 0730. I held overhead in the military operations area until I got in contact with the tower. They cleared me into the break, and as I put my landing gear down, I heard the all-too-familiar alarming sound. Checking my ICAWs once again, I saw HYD DEGD B written in yellow and noticed that the landing gear was not coming down in the normal amount of time (typically 7-10 seconds). As I processed what was going on with the aircraft, I elected to stay at pattern altitude (600’ above ground level), set the autopilot, and radio tower that I would be troubleshooting at altitude rather than landing. The tower controller acknowledged my call and advised me to report when I was ready to come aboard. By the time this happened, the landing gear finally indicated three down and locked, but HYD DEGD B remained along with some resultant ICAWs. I broke out the FCL to determine what steps were required for landing.

The F-35C has two hydraulic systems (A and B). The B side has most of the essential functions, including primary landing gear and hook extension. The A side can back it up in case of failure, and each side powers half of the braking ability to each wheel. Additionally, the aircraft is equipped with a Ground Maintenance Motor Pump (GMMP) that can power a few essential functions in the event of primary pump failure. HYD DEGD B indicated that the hydraulic pump for the B side had failed, but the absence of a more serious ICAW, such as HYD FAIL B, and the three down and locked landing gear indications signaled to me in the cockpit that the GMMP was working as advertised. My aircraft was not in immediate peril.

Following the steps in the FCL, I accomplished Alternate Gear Extension, which shuts off the GMMP to prevent overheating. I also performed Alternate Hook Extension, which uses HYD A to lower the tailhook since HYD B is the primary method. The procedure directs an arrested landing due to the lack of Nose Wheel Steering from the HYD DEGD B. With the steps in the FCL complete and good landing gear and hook indications, I radioed to the tower that I would be taking an arrested landing, and they approved me to trap on Lemoore’s runway 32L. My final step was to radio my squadron base and explain my system failure and game plan. However, construction in our hangar rendered the base radio nearly inoperative, and therefore I was unable to effectively communicate with the operations duty officer (ODO) on the base frequency. He was able to hear that I was taking a trap due to a hydraulic issue, but nothing more. More importantly, I was unable to hear his responses. If I had another issue that could have required assistance, the ODO would have not been able to assist. The event highlighted the crucial nature of a properly functioning base radio.

My trap was uneventful, and maintenance promptly came out to the runway to tow me back to the line. With post-flight data analysis, it was determined that the hydraulic pump itself had not failed, but rather had been shut down due to a faulty firewall shutoff valve, which is supposed to isolate hydraulic fluid in the event of a fire. The valve was what had been causing the intermittent VS BIT No-Go indications on the ground and had finally failed in flight after many weeks causing the VS BIT No-Go. This posed an interesting duality – the “book” said the jet was up, even though pilots and maintainers alike knew that there was a brewing problem. As a result, we have since implemented a new way to track “non-downing” but nonetheless important discrepancies in ALIS.

In summary, our seemingly good deal and easy cross country ended up turning into a quagmire. Despite our best efforts in planning and execution, both aircraft we took were unable to support many FCLPs. We left 412 at North Island, and 411 ended up taking a trap at Lemoore. However, due to sound safety practices and ORM, no aircraft or personnel were damaged. It would have been easy for us to succumb to the desires to get home and press the jets’ issues to a potentially perilous ending, but our identification and mitigation of threats and climate of safety excellence helped prevent this. In the F-35C community, we recognize our responsibility to lead the way and build a lasting legacy of safety. As we continue to learn our new aircraft’s idiosyncrasies, we will have to continue to implement new practices and controls to ensure safety and combat readiness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: LT Robert Grant is part of the first cadre of instructor pilots for VFA-125, the West Coast F-35C Fleet Replacement Squadron.

 

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