The Department of Defense considers any mishap that costs more than $2 million, or results in the total loss of an aircraft, and/or causes a fatality or permanent physical disability to be a Class A mishap. U.S. Air Force aircraft are expensive to buy, and damages cost a lot of money to fix. Here is a look at some Air Force mishaps, and how they impact those involved.

 

B-2 Spirit Loss

In 2008, a B-2 Spirit crash-landed at Anderson AFB, Guam. As a total loss, the mishap cost over one billion dollars. Look at that again: one billion dollars. That single accident took almost five percent of the B-2 fleet away, forever. Was it battle damage that caused the crash? Maybe shoddy maintenance played a part? Were the pilots intoxicated, too tired to fly, or showboating? None of the above.

Heavy rain was the culprit. B-2 is an aircraft that needs a climate-controlled hangar to live in. Moisture built up under the aircraft’s skin panels that contain sensors. Those sensors then fed erroneous data to the flight control systems, which caused the jet to rotate for takeoff just 12 knots slower than it should have. That’s only a little over 13 mph, slower than the speed required for a school zone. That lower speed caused the Spirit to not have enough airflow over the wings to generate the required lift.

The jet nosed-up, the crew tried to recover, and the left wingtip impacted the ground. Once that happened, the conclusion was foregone. The crew ejected mere feet above the ground, and milliseconds before the jet hit the ground for good. Both crew members survived the mishap, with the pilot treated and released, and the co-pilot hospitalized for spinal compression fracture, then later released. The aircraft was a total loss.

 

F-22 Raptor Losses

F-22 Raptor wreckage
The wreckage of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet that crashed on May 15, 2020, was included in an Air Force investigation report obtained by Air Force Times via the Freedom of Information Act. (Air Force Times)

Between 2004 and 2020, the F-22 program recorded five total losses to mishaps. With a price tag of $150 million apiece, that’s a grand total of $750 million lost simply from the F-22 program. While the $750 million price tag is staggering, the ramifications of these crashes are the real factor. In these five total losses, two pilots were killed: David Cooley, a 49-year old Air Force veteran test pilot for Lockheed Martin; and Captain Jeff Haney based in Alaska.

Both of these mishaps were attributed to pilot-related causes. David Cooley’s crash in 2009 was attributed to possible g-force loss of consciousness. Captain Jeff Haney’s crash in 2010 was blamed on his not engaging emergency oxygen when the aircraft oxygen system shut down.

 

F-35A Lightning Losses

The Air Force lost two F-35 Lightning between 2004 and 2020. The first was in 2014, when engine turbine blades rubbed against their enclosure, causing an engine fire. The aircraft was written off as a total loss. The second, in 2020, was attributed to pilot error and fatigue. With a price tag of approximately $78 million per aircraft, that’s a total of more than $150 million. Neither incident involved fatalities, on the ground or in the air.

F-35 taxis
An F-35 taxis from the runway onto the flightline after successfully completing a sortie, December 14, 2015, at Luke Air Force Base. The F-35 Lightning II is the most advanced fighter aircraft ever fielded, and is being adopted by the United States and eight partner nations including Norway, Italy, and Australia. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Ridge Shan/USAF)

 

The Deeper Cost of Air Force Mishaps

The dollar figures attached to these types of mishaps are only part of the story. Even without the loss of life or incapacitating injuries, the Air Force is severely impacted when one happens. Aircrews involved in mishaps have to go through an investigation process. Their lives and careers leading up to that point are dissected; their motivations are questioned; and their state of mind is examined under the proverbial microscope. The Air Force starts to wonder if the other jets on the ramp are safe. It questions the efficacy of training or maintenance.

Aircraft maintainers that worked on the jet have their training records sequestered, are sent to pee in a cup, and get pulled into an office to be interviewed by investigators. Their motivations, state of mind, and all actions are scrutinized.

 

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The Psychological Cost

When an Air Force jet crashes, every maintainer pauses and dissects their own thoughts: “Did I work on that jet? What systems did I touch? Wasn’t me. Who, then? Was it Frank? Holy God, what’s going to happen to him?  Thank the Lord it wasn’t my name in the aircraft forms!” The maintainers question nearly every maintenance action they had performed in the last few weeks.

Pilots and aircrew think back to the last time they flew on that particular tail number. They question their own perceptions and wonder whether they might have seen something that contributed to the crash: “Was that system working correctly last time? Should I have pointed out that erroneous reading that mysteriously fixed itself? If I had, would that plane have crashed?”

Commanders and planners ask themselves if the flying hour program is too stacked: “Have we been flying too much? Too many shift changes, both for maintenance and aircrew? Has flying been disrupted enough recently to shake aircrew confidence? Are crews trained well-enough before they take the stick of a new jet?”

After a mishap, questions abound. Investigators, flight chiefs, supervisors, and commanders all have questions. Some of the hardest questions come from within, though: “Will those maintainers ever not hesitate before they turn another wrench? Will those pilots ever not hesitate before they strap in and flip switches? How is the efficacy of maintenance and flying impacted, because it certainly is?”

 

Reflections

In 2018, a one-day safety stand-down in light of recent Class A mishaps was ordered by the Air Force. This was meant as a day to pause and reflect on the awesome responsibility aviation-related careers entail. One day to take stock; look closely at training, culture, and morale; and reset.

Anyone involved in a mishap, especially Class A, has already been reflecting. They have already looked into their abilities and responsibilities, and most likely questioned every aspect of their career up to that point. They may be deciding if this really is the career they want questioning their own commitment and weighing the pros and cons of remaining. Almost certainly, they are wondering if it could happen to them.

One thing is for sure, though: their time in the Air Force will never look or feel the same as before.

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