A catastrophic fighter jet crash aboard a US aircraft carrier was caused when the bumbling pilot attempted a “show of force” maneuver that went disastrously wrong, a Navy investigation has found.
The incident occurred on January 24 last year when a $115 million F-35C collided with the USS Carl Vinson during operations in the South China Sea.
The pilot, who is still a serving naval officer but no longer has “flying status,” was ejected from the plane before the plane hit the runway, causing multimillion-dollar damage to the carrier and at least one other plane. The F-35C tumbled into the ocean and was recovered months later at a depth of 12,400 feet.
The pilot and at least five other persons were injured. Leaked footage captured the dramatic crash and led to a separate investigation into who shared the video.
A naval probe has now concluded that the incident was caused by pilot error after the unnamed lieutenant in the cockpit attempted to perform an “accelerated recovery maneuver,” also known as the “Sierra Hotel Break.”
A photo has also surfaced of the plane after it fell into the South China Sea. It sank to a depth of about 12,400 feet and was recovered several weeks later
The USS Carl Vinson is seen with the USS Essex behind it in a January 2022 photo
The report on the incident, obtained by army. comdescribes an SHB as “when an aircraft makes a turn downwind from behind the ship or over the top of the ship … (using) G forces to decelerate in the course of a 360 degree turn, where the landing gear is lowered when the aircraft is below the landing gear’ transitional speed.
Former Navy pilots have described the move as a “really loud show of force.”
Commander Guy Snodgrass said in 2020, “You go screaming over the carrier, and then, just as you reach the end of it, you peel away and come ashore.”
According to the crash report, the pilot had seen other junior officers perform the maneuver and “wanted to try before the end of the deployment.”
But the lieutenant, approaching the end of a four-hour flight, did not complete the landing checklist. The pilot had not enabled Approach Power Compensation Mode (APC) to keep the jet at the correct angle, or Delta Flight Path (DFP), which automatically adjusts the throttle.
Desperate efforts by the ship’s personnel to warn the pilot were in vain.
The aircraft crashed into the carrier’s ramp and one of the missile brackets struck a landing wire on deck before the aircraft tumbled into the South China Sea.
Investigators said an EA-18G Growler jet sustained damage likely worth more than $2.5 million after being overloaded with debris. The aircraft carrier was damaged at a cost of approximately $600,000.
The pilot was previously recognized as an ‘exceptional’ non-commissioned officer and had 650 flying hours to his credit, 370 of which in an F-35C.
The report said: ‘It is the opinion of this board that pilot error was the cause of the accident. However, the mistake was not made recklessly or with malicious intent.’
It took several weeks to recover the crashed plane — while US officials raced against China, which suspected it was also trying to get to the plane.
Members of the US 7th Fleet Task Force 75 and the Naval Sea Systems Command’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving were in charge of operations related to the recovery of the F-35C fighter jet (pictured)
An F-35C Lightning II test aircraft approaches for a landing aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, in 2015
The wreckage was recovered from a depth of about 12,400 feet using a remote-controlled vehicle to attach rigging to the plane, which was then lifted by a dive support vessel, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said.
Members of the US 7th Fleet Task Force 75 and the Naval Sea Systems Command’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving were in charge of the operation. They used ‘the diving support construction vessel Picasso’ to recover the wreck.
A Navy ensign, a senior chief and three chiefs were later charged with disobeying an order under Section 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the release of the footage.
The Navy had previously dismissed media reports suggesting fears the $100 million jet could fall into the hands of China, which at the time said it had no interest in salvaging the fighter.
The F-35C incorporates some of the Navy’s most advanced technology.
Shortly after the crash, Navy officials described the damage to the Carl Vinson as “superficial” and said it quickly resumed normal operations.