Unexplained crash of UK F-35 puts US military gem in jeopardy

There is hardly any news that a military plane has crashed. Experiencing continuous flight and not always in a comfortable or easy condition, these accidents occur relatively often. The situation is even more unusual if it is the F-35, a very expensive model with a not-so-long history of incidents. But if it had happened to one of the new British naval aircraft and the explanation leads to an error, all changed. Even more so when many other countries, including Spain, are in the process of evaluating the purchase of this device. This is exactly what happened to the Royal Navy with one of its new vertical landing craft.

On November 17, the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth sailed through the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Cyprus. It was the last part of the flagship launch or ‘cruise’. Inside, 8 Royal Navy F-35B aircraft and 10 North American Marine Corps (USMC) copies. That day a series of regular flights had been scheduled and this takeoff looked like one more departure. The pilot, from 617 Squadron, fired in full and headed for the take-off deck onto a ‘ski jump’ track that served as a stepping stone and took the plane into the air. But something’s not working properly.

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Before reaching the incline, the pilot noticed poor engine response. That means a possible low speed of less than 40 knots (74 km/h) than it should be. It may seem small, but at the time it was very important and make the difference between going into the air or falling into the water. Suffice it to think that the Harrier, for example, when taking off from the LHD Juan Carlos I, left an incline at a speed of about 90 knots.

Canceling takeoff is no longer possible and the pilot verifies that he is facing worst possible situation: engine failure, for which he applied the established procedure, which was nothing but ejection. This is part of the training and is done without thinking. No other. If the plane goes without speed, there is no other alternative. You have to jump because the plane will fall into the water with little or no maneuverability (due to insufficient speed) and, in addition, will do so right at the bow of the ship.

Cause of accident

The first news is a relief one. The official reaction was a note from Ben Wallace, Secretary of Defense, who reported that the pilot is safe and sound. A few days later, on November 23 to be exact, the tabloid tabloid ‘The Sun’ stated that the cause of the accident was someone he forgot to remove one of the protective panels from the plane, perhaps with that the engine intake or ‘jet inlet’ is closed and, when the aircraft is not in flight, positioned to prevent the entry of objects which then damage the turbine. There are indications that they might be right.

The deck of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier with an F-35B aircraft. (MoD)

There are several details that support this hypothesis. The first is that the flights of the rest of the planes were not suspended, something which could imply the cause of the incident was immediately known and, other than that, it did not affect the rest. Engine failure or the fact of not knowing the cause will justify the cancellation of all flights. Shortly after, comments began circulating suggesting that a “red object” had been spotted in the water and there was talk of the possibility that one of the shields, the so-called ‘rain cover’, had been left behind.

It should be noted that there are several types of air intake protection. The ‘rain cover’ is red in color and consists of a kind of thick, laminated and waterproof canvas that completely covers the air intake and they are very visible from the outside. There are others, smaller and more rigid, called ‘intake blanks’ or, in some places, ‘engine inlet plugs’. These are mounted ‘to measure’ in the air intake, they are usually placed further inside than the ‘rain cover’ and, depending on the visual angle, are easy to not see from the outside.

An unbelievable oblivion

Losing one of these protections is very difficult. Before the plane starts moving there are a number of experts who prepare everything. They are the so-called ‘aircraft captains’ in the Anglo-Saxon world, who in Spain are called airplane captains. They are specialists belonging to a squadron or aircraft squadron, whose job is to prepare aircraft before they fly and after they return. One of your first actions is to remove all protection, such as the visible red tape – which reads “remove before flying” [“quitar antes de volar”]- which protects sensors and sensitive parts of the device. They also count and check if they are all.

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After the plane is ready, pilot arrives and performs pre-flight check, which consists of turning around the aircraft to check aspects such as control surfaces, correct mounting of weapons or deposits on wings and length and so on. Of course, that includes that all that protection has been removed. Once in the cabin, start the turbine.

With the engine running and the plane detached, one of the captains made a other visual inspection. Look for faults such as fuel or hydraulic fluid leaks. When everything was confirmed, the plane began to roll across the deck and into its takeoff position.

There visually rechecked by the shooter, who in Spain is called the flight director and wears a yellow vest. He was a non-commissioned expert officer who oversaw a series of set checks from the deck, such as engine tests performed by injecting gas into an aircraft by braking. With everything in order and at your signal, the plane accelerates and takes off.

The F-35B takes off on the HMS Queen Elizabeth line. (Lockhedd Martin)

In total, four consecutive checks were performed. Especially, the whole process of the movement of the aircraft is watched by many pairs of eyes, from the same deck and from the main flight, the ‘control tower’ is located on the stern island of the ship. Leaving the ‘intake blank’ in place is possible, but the duct completely covers the air inlet and leaves the turbine with half the required flow, so pilots should pay attention to it when applying gas to start rolling, although it’s true that it’s less. seen. Then, What could happen?

We’re getting into pure speculation, but one possibility is that it’s one of those ‘rain covers’ whose pattern is removed or folded and can be forgotten when the air intake enters. If so, and if that is also the one on the left side, it will be possible not to detect it in the following controls, because most of the personnel were on the starboard side of the plane. With the engine at half power to spin, the pilot will be oblivious to any acceleration until takeoff, at which point the turbine can swallow the protection completely, causing a loss of power and a catastrophe of which more than 100 million ended up being dumped into the sea.

Goal: recover the plane

Now comes the second part of the crash: recovering the wreckage. This is a task that, in the case of the F-35, is a priority. Not because the plane can be repaired, but because of the fact, If any of those remains fell into the ‘wrong hands’, it could be catastrophic.

F35A with ‘intake blank’ and other protections active. (Lockheed Martin)

It is reminiscent of the Japanese F-35 crashes of the past. It was an Alpha model (terrestrial version) and, sadly, the pilot died. Intensive search operations are carried out as the remains of super-secret materials, such as ‘stealth’ coatings or any electronic equipment – let alone radar – can be found. valuable information for Russia or China if they can catch them.

For all of the above, both the Royal Navy and the United States, they have moved several ships to start the search task where, of course, unmanned underwater vehicles will be used. In the case of the Japanese F-35, the exact position of the aircraft is unknown and, moreover, it is about 3,000 meters deep. Even so, some parts were found. On the other hand, this time the drop point is well known and the search will be much easier, with a depth of about 1,500 meters.

After all, there are nerves and a rush to find the plane and get it out of the water. In that area, with Syria very close, there is great Russian naval activity and this or China, without a doubt they won’t miss the chance to get their hands on a piece of that secret technology to assist them in the development of their new fifth generation aircraft.

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Due to disaster

Air accidents are always a series of events which, if they occurred separately, would have no consequences, but that Aligned deviantly they cause disaster. In the thousands and thousands of takeoffs that have taken place on aircraft carriers, various events have occurred, mostly without consequence. This waiver, if the hypothesis is confirmed, will mean that there are loopholes in the review and control procedures. Something has been done wrong and it will affect not just one person.

The consequences will surely come now. The first is to review all procedures and implement greater security measures. Training will also be intensified, both on land and in navigation, as one of the causes of these errors can be found in inadequate staff training.

It must be remembered here that the Royal Navy experienced a very important halt in its operations with aircraft, between the time the Harrier was retired and the arrival of the F-35B. This is something that has been described in this newspaper on occasion: capacity is lost very easily and quickly, but very expensive to recover. This is something to keep in mind in Spain when it comes time to retire the Harrier and the Navy runs out of starting aircraft. That is if its continuity, which passes through the F-35B, has not been completed with anticipation.

Rockie Steve

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