View Full Version : Brake failures hinder F/A-18s

08-16-05, 12:47 PM
August 22, 2005
Brake failures hinder F/A-18s
Series of recent accidents spurs warnings from aviation leaders
By Ted Bridis
Associated Press

The Navy Department’s frontline fighter jet has suffered a series of recent accidents blamed on brake failure, exposing a problem that has spurred urgent warnings from commanders, military documents obtained by the Associated Press show.

Brake problems affecting the F/A-18 Hornet pose “a severe hazard to naval aviation” that could kill pilots and ruin valuable aircraft, a Navy air wing commander wrote last year after one of his jets roared off a runway and splashed into San Diego Bay, destroying the $30 million plane.

Many of the brake failures have been traced to a $535 electrical cable — about as thin as a drinking straw — that controls the jet’s anti-skid brakes, the equivalent of anti-lock brakes on a passenger car. Investigators say the cable can chafe or break, since it runs close to where heavy tie-down chains secure the jets to a carrier deck.

In the San Diego crash, Navy investigators cited “a trend of similar, if not identical, emergencies” that date to 1990 but went unnoticed until a series of failures last year, according to records the Associated Press obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

One Navy pilot aborted a landing last fall when his brakes failed after a combat mission over Iraq. He took off again, circled the runway in Kuwait for a second landing attempt, then lowered his tailhook and caught the emergency arresting cable on the ground. He was not hurt, and there was no damage to the jet.

A month earlier, a Marine commander was injured when he ejected after he lost his brakes landing on a short runway at Quantico, Va. Other failures have occurred as recently as February.

Making matters worse, some pilots did not know the proper procedures for brake emergencies and took actions that contributed to crashes, the records show.

The Navy ordered fleetwide inspections last fall and is continuing to investigate whether it needs to redesign the Hornet’s brakes, as some commanders have urged. “This matter is by no means closed,” Navy spokesman James Darcy said.

The maker of the jet, Boeing Co., deferred comment to the Navy.

The U.S. military owns 561 Hornets, including those flown by the elite Blue Angels aerobatic team. Collectively, they represent a mainstay of Marine and Navy aviation, operating from aircraft carriers and runways. They drop bombs and dogfight, and flew more than 50,000 sorties during the height of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Investigators have concluded that cockpit procedures were confusing for Hornet pilots landing with brake failures.

Lt. Jason Walker, low on fuel, was landing in San Diego at night after two unsuccessful landing attempts aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln. The jet’s brakes failed one second after touchdown, and, among other problems, Walker couldn’t find the cockpit controls to engage emergency backup brakes. He ejected as the jet sped off the runway and into the bay at 60 mph. The Navy determined Walker shouldn’t be disciplined.

“He stood on the brakes as much as possible, but the aircraft was still not slowing,” investigators wrote, concluding his brake cable severed.

The Navy last fall ordered fleetwide inspections of brake components, instructed mechanics to immediately replace any cables they previously had repaired and reminded pilots about procedures to help land safely even when anti-skid brakes fail.

But fresh problems have surfaced.

At the Associated Press’s request, the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., located about two-dozen formal reports of failures of the Hornet’s antiskid brakes since 1990.

The incidents caused the loss of one jet, damage of at least $1 million to another, damage of up to $200,000 on three additional jets, one serious injury and one other overnight hospital stay.

Officials acknowledge that their tally of formal reports probably understates the number of brake failures. One report filed in January referred to 14 Hornet brake failures and tire blowouts in a single squadron during 2004 alone.

“This trend of brake failures and blown tires cannot be ignored,” Col. Earl Wederbrook wrote to senior Navy and Marine officials after one of his jets spun backward on a runway from a blown tire in California. “Short of an aircraft system fix ... the pilot is the only control measure that can mitigate this hazard.”

The Navy told the Associated Press the anti-skid brakes are safe and reliable and that pilots should be able to land safely despite problems if they follow proper emergency procedures. It also said the sporadic brake failures must be viewed in light of the jets’ roughly 6 million landings since the 1980s.

“There has never been a landing mishap to date where procedures were followed correctly,” said Capt. Jeffrey Penfield, a Navy pilot for 17 years who is deputy program manager for F/A-18 system development at Patuxent River, Md.

The Navy also told the Associated that based on its investigation so far, redesigning the brakes is unwarranted and would require lengthy and costly safety reviews.

“It’s been highly reliable,” said Capt. Tom Huff, the executive officer at the Navy’s Test Pilot School. “We don’t want to venture too far from what we know works. We just know that wire is vulnerable in that location, and we’ve done some engineering changes to preclude damage to that wire.”

Some commanders urged the Navy to do more.

“Ultimately, the wiring harness needs to be protected or redesigned,” Cmdr. John R. “J.D.” Dixon wrote to senior Navy officials after brakes failed in February on a Hornet speeding 115 mph down a runway at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The jet blew two tires when the pilot activated emergency backup brakes. The incident occurred months after the Navy’s new mandatory inspections and training, and mechanics traced the problem to the same brake cable. The problem was discovered later on another jet in the same squadron.

After last year’s accident in San Diego, Capt. M.C. Geron, the air wing commander, also wrote to the chief of naval operations to urge the service to improve the brake system. Failure to fix the problem “could lead to loss of use of the antiskid system, loss of normal brakes and potential loss of aircraft and life,” Geron warned.

Pilots landing on shore are instructed to turn on the anti-skid brakes, but pilots leave them switched off for carrier landings.

Investigators in the San Diego and Quantico accidents determined pilots didn’t follow procedures when the brake system failed. Investigators and documents also said the Navy’s instructions and computerized simulators do not train pilots adequately for brake hazards.

“The brake problem and loss-of-directional-control-on-ground emergency procedures are confusing,” wrote investigators in the San Diego accident.

Days after the crash in San Diego harbor, the Navy used a heavy crane to hoist the destroyed jet out of the sea. The call sign “Lucky” was stenciled outside Walker’s waterlogged cockpit.


08-16-05, 12:49 PM
August 22, 2005
Pilot deprived of oxygen in crash, officials believe
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer

A Marine pilot who crashed his F/A-18 Hornet into the waters of the eastern Atlantic last year became disoriented when he was somehow deprived of oxygen during the flight, investigators suspect.

Capt. Franklin R. Hooks, 32, with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115, plummeted into the ocean during the June 27, 2004, training flight off the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman near the Azores.

His body was never recovered despite an 18-hour search.

Investigators suspect Hooks may have been deprived of oxygen just minutes into the flight, causing a condition called hypoxia that can result in disorientation and unconsciousness, according to a Judge Advocate General Manual investigation report.

Lack of oxygen, combined with an existing “undefined illness [or] cold … led to the disorientation of Captain Hooks and ultimately through hypoxia to his inability to pilot his aircraft,” the report states.

As a result of the accident, Navy and Marine aviation officials recommended that maintenance checks be performed on oxygen and cockpit lighting systems in aircraft with the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., squadron to ensure they were working properly.

The officials further recommended more training for pilots to better recognize the signs of hypoxia and to more accurately assess their own health — stressing that pilots should not fly if they don’t feel up to it.

“It is possible that with better training the [mishap flight lead] and [mishap flight mission commander] could have assessed the severity of Captain Hooks’ distress in time to prevent the mishap,” wrote Capt. Pat Rainey, commander of Carrier Air Wing 3, in a July 22, 2004, memorandum accompanying the report.

“We in the naval aviation community need to train to the fact that once an aircrew communicates openly with another member of his flight ... regarding his own well-being, that it is incumbent upon the next senior member to intercede in a directive manner on his behalf.”

No punitive actions were taken as a result of the mishap.

Pilot was confused

Hooks, a 1997 Naval Academy graduate and prior enlisted sailor, made several confused radio transmissions during the flight — which started about 11:30 p.m. local time — raising suspicions among other aviators on the mission that he was in trouble.

Just 10 minutes into the flight, Hooks — flying a single-seat F/A-18+ aircraft — was unable to say which aircraft he was supposed to link up with and was not sure of his location, according to radio logs contained in the mishap report. Seven minutes later, an unnamed pilot asked Hooks about his condition.

“OK, tell you what, how are you feeling?” the flight lead pilot asked Hooks.

Hooks gave an “unintelligible” reply on his oxygen status but said he was not suffering from vertigo and did not need to descend, the report states.

“It is likely that due to being on [night-vision goggles] at the time of the questioning and the difficulty of viewing the aircraft cockpit pressurization gauge and oxygen quantity gauge, as well as exhibiting coldlike symptoms from an undefined illness and slightly hypoxic, that an inaccurate reply was given,” the report stated.

The rest of the Hornets continued with their training mission, leaving Hooks to fly in a holding position to their south.

About 30 minutes into the flight, the Hornets rejoined Hooks and he said he needed help landing his jet aboard the Truman.

“I need a straight-in approach right now with no vectors. My wingman is in bad shape and can’t be dragged all over the place doing turns,” a pilot told controllers aboard an E-2C Hawkeye accompanying the training flight.

Eight minutes later, about 12:30 a.m., the flight leader called “mayday” as Hooks’ plane dived steeply into the Atlantic.

“Neither Captain Hooks, nor any other member of the mishap flight recognized the nature or severity of his distress in time to prevent the mishap,” Rainey wrote.

“[Hooks] failed to recognize the deadly consequences of his symptoms before losing the mental clarity to calculate an appropriate course of action or to clearly articulate his problem to the rest of the flight.”