It was June 2009 and myself and members of the 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams” at Hill AFB Utah had just finished our night flight training over the UTTR (Utah Test and Training Range) due west of Salt Lake City. As we exited the range our sister squadron the 421st Fighter Squadron “Black Widows,” also from Hill AFB, were entering the range for their training time. It was about ten o’clock at night.
Shortly thereafter, during our debriefings that evening, we learned of the horrible news. The 421st had lost a pilot and an aircraft over the range.
It was discovered that Capt. George “Ice” Houghton had perished, he was 28 years old at the time. Later, the accident investigation revealed that Ice was attempting a fairly routine high angle strafe pass at the time of the accident. He was wearing NVGs as we all did, and pointed the nose of the aircraft down steeply, accelerated to over 450 knots and executed a textbook night strafe attack.
What he didn’t do, was pull up in time.
During the accident recovery and analysis, there wasn’t much left in the desert to sort through following the high-speed impact. Ice left behind a distraught and shaken family, and comrades all wondering what had happened.
Viper Auto GCAS
Back in my day (boy do I sound old) and those days at Hill AFB, F-16 Vipers and all 4th generation fighters didn’t have this new technology. We had ground sensing software and the jet would tell you to pull up if a crash was imminent, but that was it. The old stuff was just termed GCAS (Ground Collision Avoidance System). It worked (usually late or very low) and had its share of nuisance alarms and false “pull ups” and of course didn’t do anything in the way of taking control of the aircraft.
Now called AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System), or sometimes Auto GCAS, this new capability in the F-16 essentially “takes over” for the pilot if it recognizes an impending ground collision, and pulls the airplane out of the dive without any pilot involvement. It’s primarily designed to save pilots who have GLOC’d (G-Induced Loss of Consciousness) and pilots who have lost SA (Situational Awareness) like Ice did.
Auto GCAS was implemented into the F-16 fleet in late 2014 and was developed over the course of three decades by Lockheed Martin, NASA, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“Auto-GCAS continuously compares a prediction of the aircraft’s trajectory against a terrain profile generated from onboard terrain elevation data. If the predicted trajectory touches the terrain profile, the automatic recovery is executed by the Auto GCAS autopilot. The automatic recovery maneuver consists of an abrupt roll-to-upright and a nominal 5-G pull until terrain clearance is assured.”
Pretty cool stuff.
An Auto GCAS Save
If you don’t fly fighters, it’s hard to understand how fast “bad stuff” can happen in the jet. In the most recent and considered fourth Auto GCAS “save” an F-16 student pilot G-LOC’d at 17,000 feet. As it usually is during a turning BFM fight, the afterburner was “plugged in” and shortly after the G-LOC happened the aircraft entered a very steep dive.
“After only 22 sec., the F-16 was nose-down almost 50 deg. below the horizon and going supersonic. The shocked instructor called “2 recover!” as the student passed 12,320 ft. at 587 kt. Two seconds later, with the nose down in a 55-deg. dive, altitude at 10,800 ft. and speed passing 613 kt., the worried instructor again calls “2 recover!” In a little less than another 2 sec., as the now frantic instructor makes a third call for the student pilot to pull up, the Auto-GCAS executes a recovery maneuver at 8,760 ft. and 652 kt.”
From losing control of the aircraft to the full recovery took just less than 30 seconds. Going from 17,000 feet to the earth can happen ludicrously fast in a fighter, about 15 seconds in the case above. Most G-LOCs and pilot incapacitation can last far longer.
What Viper Pilots Say
I interviewed a number of current and former F-16 pilots on this subject and have yet to meet one who didn’t like the system, or the new capability. “The system works as advertised. The documented saves are impressive. I think of the lives that could have been saved over the years…I am extremely grateful that we won’t have as many of those tragedies in the future.” Col David “Baja” Shoemaker, Vice Commander, 56th Fighter Wing, Luke AFB.
“Rhett” Butler (F-16 Test Pilot and Weapons Officer) also says it’s a “great system that pays for itself with just one aircraft save. I’ve used AGCAS on the BLK-60 and BLK-52 and found it very reliable with few unnecessary fly ups based on formation interference and/or high dive/air-to-air maneuvering that is easily paddled off when recognized.”
A former T-38 UPT student of mine and later part of the USAF 422nd Test Squadron which tests these kinds of things for the fleet said “Many naysayers harp on its conservative nature in certain arenas, and it is by no means a perfect system, but I can tell you in 1,000 hours of all of us flying in the 422 we had three nuisance flyups. The other complaint is strafe. We had one flyup during strafe attributed to rising terrain long of the target. Early fielding received many strafe complaints but the way the math works out, if you are slow (less G available) and shallow (closer to the ground at cease-fire range), or stupid fast(>500) and steep, you will get a flyup. If you are on the numbers, you are good.”
He also says “For me the bottom line is if I could go back in time and field this in 2011, the 422 bar wouldn’t be called “Dirks Place,” “Mano” could have been renamed for his buffoonery instead of buried, and there wouldn’t be a charity in honor of “Gaza.” Not to mention all the F-22 losses we had that could have operated on a similar system. Four friends of mine and a couple of foreign pilots would be alive today if it had been fielded five years earlier.”
There are hordes of other Viper pilots too who love the new capability, as it just might save their bacon someday when they have a SA dump or get caught by the G-LOC monster.
From an anonymous F-16 pilot who was part of the OT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) in 2002 “The system worked as advertised. We could fly night low altitude. I liked the way it would recover the Viper out of an extreme nose low attitude without any input from the pilot.”
Other pilots commented to me on how we should have had it sooner. “Numerous leaders in the Turd Palace felt the price tag was not worth the cost of several fighter pilots or [other] weapons and avionics upgrades.” Obviously this pilot is angry at not having the system sooner, due to friends and comrades lives lost. I don’t blame him.
Like lifeboats on the Titanic, it can often seem that life-saving technology is too little too late.
AGCAS and the Future
It appears that Auto GCAS is here to stay. That is a good thing. All F-16s worldwide (2,988 in 2016) will be upgraded soon, with most already having completed the necessary avionics changes that allow the system to work.
It is truly sad that many lives were lost in the absence of this technology, and we only recognize now, as this capability is implemented the true impact that it has. Having it long ago, or sooner in a weapons system seems like an obvious much-needed upgrade. But as often the case, the technology just wasn’t ready back then, and warfighters and money-controllers had other priorities as well.
We can only hope that future technological advancements for pilot safety continue to be invented, tested, funded, and fielded. Doing so increases pilot safety and combat capability and is always a wise investment for the DoD.
A few days after Ice’s crash, I remember a call going out through the Wing at Hill AFB. Ice’s widow Josie, had asked for just one simple thing in the aftermath of her tremendous loss…her husband’s wedding ring. Ice had it with him at the time of the accident.
Members of the 421st Fighter Squadron as well as all the Fighter Squadrons on Base came together and headed to the crash site.
Searching for hours, with sophisticated metal detection devices as well as by hand, they sorted through a debris field and scorched earth nearly as big as a football field. Remember that there wasn’t much left bigger than a baseball sized chunk of metal strewn across the desert.
The team nearly gave up that day as night approached. Resolved to come back and try again tomorrow. But then someone shouted… “I’ve found it!” Pulled from the blackened rubble, the ring was located.
Members of the 421st Fighter Squadron, my friend, and Ice’s friend and squadron-mate Robert “Boucher” Ungerman, who lead the search party, later presented her lost husband’s ring to Josie.
This article is dedicated to the F-16 fighter pilots who lost their lives doing what they were called to do, and where a system such as Auto GCAS could have saved them.
Pat “Sherman” Potter, 1998
Randy “Chongo” Murff, 2001
Troy “Trojan” Gilbert, 2006
George “Ice” Houghton, 2009
Eric “Dirk” Ziegler, 2011
Lucas “Gaza” Gruenther, 2013
James “Mano” Steel, 2013
And countless others…
Featured image courtesy of US Air Force