What Else Could Go Wrong?

Ordance

Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Ernie Westly assigned to Weapons Department, aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), transfers an AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), from a flight deck elevator to an awaiting aircraft. Photo by Mass Communications Specialist Chris M. Valdez.

BY LT JEFF FINDLAY

Just when I thought nothing else could go wrong one day, I looked up and saw a face full of EA-18G. I’m fortunate to be here to tell my story. However, every thought I have of September 14, 2017 comes with a feeling of queasiness, and I wait for the day I won’t be affected by this story or others like it.

That day marked my third week of Air Wing Fallon and large force strikes (LFSs) on the Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC). LFS planning is a multi-day evolution. The strike’s mission planning factors are given to the mission commander (MC) a couple of days prior, and the MC receives briefs from intelligence officers, targeteers, and weather forecasters. The load plan and associated aircrew are provided the day prior. On this particular event, CAG was briefed on the plan the morning of, the final details were hashed out in mission planning throughout the morning, and the event itself was executed in the afternoon.

I was a senior pilot finishing up my department head tour at VFA-137 attached to CVW-2, and was awaiting transfer to my next command. On this particular day, mission planning started at 0830, and my job was to carry and employ an anti-radiation missile (ARM). By no means is this a glamorous job, but I certainly didn’t want to be the one to mess things up. Failure could cause the strike package to be threatened and shot at by surface-to-air missile systems.

My aircraft was loaded with three ARM captive air training missiles (CATMs) and my portion of mission planning was fairly easy, but time-consuming, due to my relative inexperience with the weapon. Although the air wing and I were not as proficient as we would have liked based on operational and maintenance constraints, the plan for the strike was well within our capabilities. For my part, I would keep visual contact with those entities I was supposed to protect and employ weapons as required. The EA-18G Growlers held command of the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) package and our division, while I was in charge of my section of FA-18Es.

Simple, right? I thought “easy day.”

After the mass and element briefs, my wingman and I headed to our ready room confident we knew the game plan, which included our section owning 27,000 feet in the rendezvous stack and the knowledge of where everyone else was going to be in that stack. Our focus then shifted to getting mentally ready, rewarding ourselves with a sandwich, loading mission cards, and getting dressed in order to make it to the jets for a timely start. However, after walking back to the hangar and looking at dark skies, we should have guessed our plan was about to change.

Once in the ready room, we were told by the squadron duty officer we were in thunderstorm condition 1 (T-1). T-1 went until 1530, which was our walk time. During T-1, NAS Fallon prohibits fueling, the uploading and downloading of ordnance, and personnel on aircraft. In other words, the aircraft sat idle from the time T-1 was called until it was lifted, around an hour total. My aircraft had its ordnance loaded and was fueled prior to T-1, so I walked at the normal time. However, the other four aircraft in my squadron were still not prepared for the training mission, and ultimately required a lot of maintenance manpower to get back the hour lost to weather.

I started up my jet in accordance with NATOPS, and the “ordies” armed my ARM CATMs. Hoping to get out of the line quickly to allow our maintenance personnel to concentrate on my peers’ aircraft, I taxied out in a relatively short time. However, as I finished powering up my systems, I noticed one of my ARM missiles was not functioning properly and had to taxi back in. My wingman had yet to even start up.

As I began to troubleshoot, I heard it questioned over our base frequency if the mission time would be shifted (rolex) or canceled due to the time. The answer was to continue to move forward, but without delineating a new timeline. This is where I could have first helped the situation, and recommended a formal rolex. Since LFSs are scripted and executed based on a timeline, knowing the timetable you are working with is critical to keeping everyone on the same page. I’ve heard this done many times in my prior experience, but I failed to make the recommendation on this event. Instead, I concentrated on getting my jet into a flying condition, picking up my wingman, and getting airborne. Allowing someone else to make the call or take action is known as diffusion of responsibility. We know it plainly as, “that’s his job, not mine.” I was 100 percent guilty of it here, but wait and read on … it only gets worse.

After some troubleshooting on deck, which included cycling my mission computers, I noticed my once “tight” Link-16 information was now corrupt. From experience, I knew Link-16 wouldn’t come back unless I did a cold shutdown, aka “control-alt-delete,” but I didn’t have time for that. I had done plenty of missions without Link-16 and knew I could do this flight without it as well.

Unfortunately, the information it was providing was not reliable and only distracted me later in the flight.

I got my jet back on line and out to marshall after a few minutes. I saw other event players taxiing for takeoff, and I sat anxiously waiting for my wingman. Just as I was about to taxi as a single, my wingman said he was “up.” Unfortunately, during the taxi I noticed he had an intermittent auxiliary radio issue, and was forced to send him back to the line as a “down” aircraft.

Takeoff was uneventful, although now 25 minutes past my planned launch sequence time. I switched up to Desert Control who gave me the airspace for the event. The FRTC was now capped at 29,000 feet, a loss of over 10,000 feet of the planned altitude. After completing my G-warm, I climbed to 27K, my briefed rendezvous altitude. Turning to the primary strike frequency, I immediately heard the start of the roll call and I thought to myself “awesome, I made it!” At this point I was still in the west portion of the FRTC, but I gave my call sign accordingly when it was my turn.

I soon rolled up SEAD’s tactical frequency and let the lead know I was down one ARM missile and I’d be a single for the event. The lead Growler rogered up my comm call with his call sign, and a discussion followed about how to service all the surface-to-air systems with the lack of my ARM missile. This is where I missed another opportunity to help avoid an impending mishap.

I should have proactively asked if there was any change to the game plan after the airspace had been capped. I did not. Instead, I elected to stay a silent wingman and believed that since I didn’t get any new information upon checking in, nothing had changed. “Brief your flight, fly your brief,” is what I grew up with, but applying this in a vacuum is what almost got me killed.

I missed yet another opportunity to ask about changes when I checked in with AIC (air intercept control). Due to crypto issues with the primary E-2C, I checked in with the backup controller “Bronco” and received only acknowledgement of my presence. Knowing this had become a flexed event, I should have proactively asked Bronco for any updates to the game plan, but failed to do so.

I was halfway thru the FRTC when “COMEX” (commence exercise) was called by the range training officer (RTO). Knowing I needed to ensure de-confliction between myself and an aircraft simulating a Standoff Land Attack Missile – Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) profile, as well as the fighters pushing east to sanitize the air threat, I tried using Link-16 information to find the striker but noticed it was still degraded.

I biased to the north as best I could to stay out of his way and began to think about finding the strike package I was supposed to take separation off of. After having flown many of these events, I still wanted to sanitize my area with radar and confirm my rendezvous altitude was clear. After confirming there were no “hits” at my altitude, I entered the Zircon at 27,000 feet and rolled my radar down to try to find the strike package, which was briefed to be 1,000 feet below me.

After staying away from where I thought the simulated SLAM-ER missile aircraft was, I pushed down to the southern part of the airspace, skirting weather, and continuing to look for the strike package. I double-checked their planned altitude on my kneeboard card, and I tried to designate their Link-16 information without any luck. Thinking I was alone at 27K, I believed I was keeping a good inside/outside scan. I was wrong.

With an event which clearly wasn’t going as planned, I should have verbally confirmed the location of the strike package and kept my scan level on the horizon vice biased to below me. Instead, as the push time approached, I started to look more underneath my aircraft for the strike package. Looking over my left canopy rail and down, I noticed a darker than sky spot in my peripheral at about the 10:30 level position.

I looked up and found myself on a 100kt collision course with an EA-18G. Two things happened immediately. First, I was convinced I was going to die by having my canopy crushed by the Growler’s wing pods and the bottom of its fuselage. I also started to put forward and right inputs into the controls in an initial attempt to fly the aircraft away. Second, I readjusted my flight path to see if I could avoid striking their cockpit with my left wing. I gently adjusted my stick inputs into the Growler in an attempt to get my wing below their cockpit and maybe, just maybe, clear their right wing and pods.

As I flew by the Growler I felt a movement in my flight controls very similar to employing a 500 or 1,000 pound bomb off of my left wing. I immediately looked over my right side and high and saw the other aircraft flying still at its original altitude as I was slowly descending. I looked at my left vertical stabilizer in my mirror and then at my left-wing and didn’t notice anything visually wrong from my perspective. I then became concerned with descending through the stack and started to level off slowly. The Growler called a “knock-it-off” over the strike common frequency, and I informed the RTO we had just had a midair.

The recovery of both aircraft was uneventful. Controllability checks were completed and both aircraft took precautionary traps. Relatively speaking, minimal damage was incurred and the mishap was ultimately labeled a Class B. My wingtip nicked the Growler underneath its cockpit. How simple it is to say “class Bravo B” for monetary value, when just a few more feet or angle of bank could have ended in the loss of aircraft and life. I’ve had a great amount of time to reflect on this event, and will carry the experience with me for the rest of my life and career.

Despite my attempt at adhering to Admin and TacAdmin procedures, I failed to ask simple questions at critical points. I had bad situational awareness airborne, and missed the opportunities to correct it. We have been taught in our community to keep communication minimal and treat radio time as precious. However, when questions arise, staying silent is both counterproductive and dangerous.

What had been missed by not asking questions? Five minutes before I launched, the stack-game plan changed, and all players had moved down 2,000 feet in altitude from what was written on the kneeboard card. The Growlers’ new rendezvous altitude was 27,000 feet and the strike package I was so concerned with finding was 3,000 feet below me, instead of 1,000. The new game plan was audibled but not rogered up by all players. However, since everyone else was already up strike common, they at least heard the change where I did not. Although no one passed the change to me when checked in, with my experience, I should have known something was up.

We learn from these events through Approach articles, word-of-mouth, and through lessons learned. I hope my story reminds aircrew at all experience levels silence is not a solution, and a well-timed question can save the day. Naval Aviation is a dynamic environment and changes are bound to happen. However, when they do, aircrew need to slow things down and ensure they have the appropriate information to execute the event safely.

 

 

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