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F-35C Mishap On USS Carl Vinson Caused By Pilot Error After ‘Sierra Hotel Break’

F-35C crash
Frame from the leaked video showing the F-35C crash. In the box, file photo of the crashed F-35C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Larissa T. Dougherty)

The investigation found that the pilot did not activate two landing assist tools that automatically adjust throttle and maintain the angle of attack, leading to low power approach.

A year after a F-35C Lightning II suffered a ramp strike on the USS Carl Vinson, resulting in the loss of the aircraft and multiple sailors being injured, the findings of the investigation are now public, as well as the detailed circumstances of the mishap. The investigation report, obtained by USNI News, shows that the pilot did not activate two landing assist tools built in the F-35’s avionics, resulting in a less than ideal speed during the final approach to the aircraft carrier.

The crash happened on January 24, 2022, at approximately 1630 local time, while the USS Carl Vinson was operating in the South China Sea. The official investigation was completed and released on February 16, 2023. While the investigation pointed out that the cause of the mishap was found to be pilot error, it also pointed out that the error was not a result of reckless actions or malicious intent.

“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,” the report said. “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 pilot, on his first deployment and assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 “Argonauts”, is defined in the report as one of the top performing junior officers in Carrier Air Wing 2, with 650.3 flight hours under his belt, of which 370.7 in the F-35C Lightning II. According to the report, “The MP was a previous Top-5 Nugget and a Top-10 ball-flyer within CVW-2, indicating that his landing performance at the ship had been exceptional for a first-tour junior officer (JO)”.

<img data-lazy-fallback="1" data-attachment-id="81904" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="1024,571" data-comments-opened="0" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"7.1","credit":"U.S. Navy","camera":"NIKON D4S","caption":"PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 28, 2021) An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the \u00d2Argonauts\u00d3 of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, launches off the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX) 2021, Nov. 28, 2021. ANNUALEX is a multilateral exercise conducted by naval elements of the Royal Australian, Royal Canadian, German, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and U.S. navies to demonstrate naval interoperability and a joint commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Larissa T. Dougherty)","created_timestamp":"1638106886","copyright":"Public Domain","focal_length":"105","iso":"80","shutter_speed":"0.005","title":"USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Conducts Flight Operations in Philippine Sea","orientation":"1"}" data-image-title="USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Conducts Flight Operations in Philippine Sea" data-image-description data-image-caption="

modex NE-406, BUNO 169304, as it launches off the USS Carl Vinson in 2021.

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Modex NE-406, BUNO 169304, as it launches off the USS Carl Vinson in 2021.

When the mishap happened, the pilot was returning from a routine four-hour mission with the callsign JASON 406, accompanied by another F-35C acting as flight lead. While returning to the aircraft carrier, the pilot requested to perform the so-called “Shit Hot” break for the first time. Here is what our Editor David Cenciotti wrote about the Shit Hot break in a story in December 2022:

“The “break” is the tight turn performed by aircraft recovering aboard a carrier to enter the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. Generally speaking, based on CV NATOPS Manual, a standard approach would see the aircraft entering the traffic pattern at the initial (3 miles astern, 800 feet) wings level, paralleling the BRC (Base Recovery Course) – the magnetic heading of the ship (it’s worth noticing that the final approach heading is not the same as the BRC because of the angled deck.

The break is usually performed as the aircraft overflies the flight deck or further upwind. But, if the turn is carried out with extra speed and right at or slightly aft (behind) the ship, then it is called a Shit Hot Break (SHB). A SHB adds more stress on the pilot, as the landing becomes much more difficult: there’s little room to fix anything during the approach as this becomes a continuous 360-degree turn to landing.”

The investigation report provides another definition of the maneuvers, officially named as “expedited recovery” or “Sierra Hotel” break, with some more details:

“An expedited recovery maneuver is when an aircraft initiates a turn to downwind from either behind the ship or over the top of the ship. Based on airspeed, break location, and G- forces applied to an aircraft, there are various types of expedited recoveries (also referred to as a Sierra Hotel Break (SHB)).

The expedited recovery maneuver is commonplace in naval aviation and it can reduce the amount of open deck time as a ready deck is waiting for a recovering aircraft. During an expedited recovery, an 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.”

<img data-lazy-fallback="1" data-attachment-id="81902" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="1024,571" data-comments-opened="0" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"1"}" data-image-title="F-35C_Crash_Investigation_2" data-image-description data-image-caption="

Frames from the leaked video showing the F-35C as it hits the deck and skids sideways engulfed in flames.

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Frames from the leaked video showing the F-35C as it hits the deck and skids sideways engulfed in flames.

The report then goes on detailing the events that led to the mishap. JASON 406 initiated the break while over the Landing Signal Officer’s platform, with flight data showing a 400 KCAS, 7 G break while in maximum afterburner. The throttle was placed to flight idle after about 30 seconds from the break, and was not moved again until 2.6 seconds prior to impact.

“The MP explained that he tried avoiding a wide approach pattern by maintaining his pull (keeping G on the airplane) in an attempt to get below 300 KCAS (landing gear extension speed limit)”, says the report. “He described pulling the ship to the nose at the 90 and then dropping the landing gear as he targeted an appropriate groove-distance. After dropping the landing gear, MP put down the arresting hook, but he could not recall selecting APC.”

APC is one of the two landing assist tools that the F-35C provides to assist pilots during landing on an aircraft carrier, the Approach Power Compensation Mode (APC) and the Delta Flight Path (DFP). 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.

“The MP did not remember selecting or confirming that he had selected APC for landing”, mentions the investigation. “The MP stated that he did not select DFP because he was working hard to get the airplane slowed to optimum approach AOA, on glideslope, and on centerline.”

In fact, the F-35 was flying the approach faster than intended, adding to the stress of the high-paced maneuver, and the pilot made corrections to get the jet on the right flight parameters.

“The MP recalled being uncomfortable at the 45 because the airplane was taking a long time to decelerate to optimum approach speed (12.3 degrees AOA) and the ship was getting closer”, says the report. “In large part due to being at a faster-than-normal airspeed, the MP also explained that he was seeing a different sight-picture in the approach turn from what was typical”.

The report details how the aircraft was flying at around 180 knots, above the glideslope and with a non-optimal Angle of Attack, leading the pilot to believe the LSO were going to wave off his landing attempt. The F-35C was expected to fly with an optimum  approach AOA of 12.3 degrees, which accounting the aircraft configuration and the fuel load would yield an optimum approach speed of 140 knots.

As the F-35C approached the optimum approach AOA and speed, the pilot attempted to add power by increasing aft stick input, realizing that the jet was extremely underpowered as it kept slowing down and descending. The pilot then first set the throttle to military power and then maximum afterburner once he realized that the aircraft was failing to climb, however “the MA continued decelerating to a speed of approximately 120 KCAS and increased AOA to 16 degrees before striking the ramp at 123.5 KCAS and 21 degrees AOA”.

As the investigation found out, the pilot became task saturated during the Sierra Hotel break, and this led to the failure to follow the checklist and activate the landing assist tools, which in turn resulted in the wrong flight parameters for the final approach to the aircraft carrier.

“The MP explained that he did not complete his landing checklist because he was overwhelmed by an abundance of tasks (a condition known as task saturation),” states the report. “The MP described lowering his Landing Gear (step 1), dropping the Arresting Hook (step 2), having his Land Taxi lights as required (step 3), but he failed to confirm that he had engaged APC/DFP (step 4).”

As the aircraft impacted the flight deck, the LAU-151 missile rail on the left wing, normally used to carry externally AIM-9X missiles, caught the wire and caused the aircraft to start a counter-clockwise rotation. This, according to the investigation, likely kept the wreckage from impacting other personnel, equipment and aircraft on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson.

As we already reported, six people were injured during the mishap, including the pilot. The pilot was injured during the ejection, after which he was rescued by a MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 4 (HSC-4) “Black Knights” acting as plane guard helicopter during the recovery of fixed wing aircraft aboard the aircraft carrier. The F-35C wreckage was later recovered on March 2, 2022 from a depth of approximately 12,400 feet.

An EA-18G Growler, IRONCLAW 503 (BUNO 169211) was also damaged by debris from the mishap. The aircraft was parked on the elevator 3 and suffered damage to the fuselage skin and internal components. The damaged Growler was inducted by Fleet Readiness Center Southwest’s (FRCSW), where damages where assessed to be in excess of more than $2.5 million. The crash also resulted in approximately $120,000 in damage to Carl Vinson’s flight deck.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

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