Navy fighter pilots found themselves in a life threatening situation over America’s Pacific Northwest last month, as the cabin pressure and air temperature systems failed in their EA-18G Growler.

The two-man crew from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine were cruising at approximately 25,000 feet some 60 miles south of Seattle Washington at the time of the failure, according to Defense News, who broke this story. Warning lights illuminated the cockpit indicating problems with the systems required to maintain the temperature and air pressurization within the fighter jet’s cockpit, immediately plummeting the interior temperature to approximately negative 30 degrees and putting a layer of ice over the cockpit canopy and instrumentation panels. The crew were forced to switch to the emergency oxygen supply, which was found completely depleted by the end of the dramatic flight.

With the environmental control system down, the pilots found themselves unable to use visual cues on the horizon and with limited access to their instrumentation – but perhaps worst of all, being subjected to such extreme temperatures can have an immediate effect on one’s ability to control fine motor function, as well as reducing cognitive capabilities and response times.

The human body’s survival response to extreme cold is, first, to redirect all blood flow away from the extremities in order to keep the internal organs warm enough to function, hence the pins and needles one might experience at the early onset of frostbite. As the blood drains from the limbs, the grow slower and less responsive, reducing dexterity. In a supersonic capable EA-18G Growler, loss of motor function in the pilot’s hands and feet can mean certain disaster.

A common saying in wilderness survival circles is that “cold makes you dumb;” as your body’s temperature continues to plummet, decision making skills begin to suffer, often resulting in confusion and indecision. The negative 30 degree temperatures inside the cabin of the aircraft, combined with the rapidly diminishing oxygen supplies almost certainly made finding solutions to the rapidly growing list of problems facing the Growler’s crew even more difficult to manage.

Nonetheless, the crew of the Growler were able to maintain course by utilizing their Garmin GPS watches, and worked with ground-based controllers to coordinate their landing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Both pilots suffered frostbite on their extremities from the harrowing experience, but it stands without question that their heroic effort and level headedness saved not only the aircraft, but quite likely, their lives.

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“The aircrew was treated upon landing; one of the aircrew is already back in a flight status; the other is not yet back in a flight status but is expected to make a complete recovery,” Naval Air Forces spokesman Cmdr. Ron Flanders said in an official statement regarding the incident.

“The mishap is under investigation; I cannot comment further. Once the investigation is complete, the Navy will determine which further actions are necessary.”

The GPS watches the pilots used, the Garmin Fenix 3, rings in at around $450, but all Navy pilots assigned to Hornet, Super Hornet, and Growler platforms were issued them by the Navy following a rash of similar incidents compromising oxygen supply and environmental controls in the gets in recent years. They are able to manage not only time and location, but can also provide information on air pressure, altitude and course setting. Despite concerns about these systems being prominent enough for the Navy to issue these watches out, they have made no formal statements about their intended use being to navigate the aircraft following such a systems failure.

This is, however, the first time this sort of failure has been reported in the Growler, though in December of 2016, a different kind of environmental system failure saw cockpit air pressure spike while the aircraft was still on the ground. One pilot suffered a collapsed lung and the other experienced a traumatic brain injury from the event, but both survived.

 

Image courtesy of the Department of Defense