The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely considered to be the most advanced air combat platform ever to take to the skies, but with the increased capabilities allotted by new technologies comes an inherent drawback: the possibility that the technology can fail. That’s exactly the situation Captain Robert Larson, a student F-35 pilot assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, found himself in this past May.
While flying a routine training mission in the F-35, Larson started noticing system failures.
“I was pretty high up, about 34,000 feet, and all of a sudden everything got really quiet,” Larson recounted. “I tried to call my flight lead and realized I couldn’t talk to anybody.”
Facing multiple system failures and the loss of communications in any kind of aircraft would be daunting, let alone in the most expensive and complicated fighter ever devised. The platform uses two on-board computers to manage flight operations and its suite of data fusion capabilities, as well as two constantly connected, encrypted networks that identify and inform the pilot about incoming threats and track maintenance and logistical needs. Every input offered by the pilot through the controls is interpreted and relayed through the flight computers into action taken by the aircraft.
“I started descending, working through my checklist and rocking my wings to try and let my flight lead know that I didn’t have a radio. As I got further into the checklist, I realized I had lost one of the flight computers that was responsible for controlling oxygen, pressurization, and some parts of communication,” Larson said.
Once Larson’s flight lead indicated that he understood that the student pilot’s communications were down, Larson left the formation to return to their airstrip at Luke Air Force Base, near Glendale, Arizona. Despite a laundry list of systems that were no longer online, the aircraft was built with enough redundancy to ensure that he still had full control of the fighter… but as he closed with the air strip, he came to another terrible realization. According to his checklists, the failures he was contending with likely included the landing gear.
“At that point my plan was to land and if the gear collapsed as I was landing I was going to eject,” said Larson. “Luckily it didn’t and I was able to pull off to the end of the runway and shut down there and wait for maintenance.”
Larson landed the aircraft safely without causing any more damage to it or risking serious injury to himself — quite the impressive feat for a student that’s still learning the platform. Larson himself credits his ability to handle the limping aircraft to a combination of his traditional flight training alongside the Human Performance Team’s Fighter Tactical Strengthening and Sustainment (FiTSS) program, which aims to prepare pilots for the mental and psychological rigors of flying a hundred million dollars worth of state secrets in combat.
“We have an academic portion that covers mindfulness, awareness, intensity regulation, focus and attention, self-talk, goal setting, confidence, motivation and team cohesion,” said Dr. John Gassaway, Clinical Sports Psychologist with the Human Performance Team. “Then we meet one-on-one about twice a month to talk about how they are implementing these strategies.”
Larson believes that FiTSS program played a significant role in helping him work his way through the failure checklists, identify his problems, and work methodically to resolve or mitigate them one after another until he was able to get the plane back on the ground.
“I had practiced for all this time and it worked in a way where I was able to stay calm, successfully work through everything, bring the jet back and land safely,” said Larson. “All those mental skills helped so much, and it’s not until you have the time to reflect that you realize how useful and necessary they are.”