Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Viper Down

The Air Force and CENTCOM have begun their investigation into yesterday's crash of an F-16CG in western Iraq. According to a CENTCOM press release, the single-seat fighter was in support of coalition ground forces when it went down about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad. The status of the pilot remains unknown; coalition fighter and UAV assets were overhead when the F-16 went down and reported that insurgents were in the area immediately after the crash.
Allied forces later secured the crash site, after combat operations in the area ceased.

Obviously, you don't need to be a search-and-rescue (SAR) expert to understand that the situation looks grim for the downed pilot. While all military aircrews are trained in combat survival, evasion and resistance techniques, you need a little head start on the ground to put your plan into effect. If the terrorists arrived on the scene quickly, the pilot's chances of making an escape (and implementing an evasion plan) were greatly reduced.

Making matters worse, the terrian in the area appears to be open, flat desert, offering few opportunities for concealment. Areas with some degree of vegatation--including farms--are usually populated, increased chances for detection. Factor in a local populace that is hostile to all outsiders (particularly) Americans, and you've got some idea of the escape and evasion (E&E) environment facing that F-16 pilot.

That is not to say the pilot is already in enemy hands. Scott O'Grady barely escaped Bosnia Serb troops when he was shot down over the Balkans, and played a cat-and-mouse game with his foes for almost a week before being rescued. Obviously, Capt O'Grady was in an environment that was much more conducive to concealment and evasion. But other warfighters have managed to successfully evade in a desert environment, including two members of an SAS team that made it to Syria, after being detected/compromised by Iraqi forces during the first Gulf War. Their legendary trek covered more than 100 miles, under brutal, winter conditions and near-constant pursuit by Iraqi soldiers.

Along with his training, the downed pilot has a few other factors working in his favor. When he bailed out of the F-16, he was wearing a survival vest that contained (among other things), a survival radio, additional signaling devices, a small supply of water, and a loaded 9mm pistol. Other survival gear was stored in a pack attached to his ejection seat; if he was able to recover that pouch, he has more equipment to support evasion and survival in the desert.

And, coalition forces will have some idea of where to look for the pilot. Before flying his mission, the F-16 driver filed an "Evasion Plan of Action" (EPA) with his unit intelligence staff. A copy of that plan was immediately forwarded to theater rescue forces when the F-16 was reported down. The EPA outlines the pilot's plan for evading at various points along the route of flight. Search and rescue assets, along with electronic support measures (ESM) aircraft, can focus their search in those areas, and ground forces will begin scouring those regions as well.

On the "down" side, the pilot's ability to evade could be impaired by any injuries he suffered in the ejection process. In the Vietnam era, it wasn't unusual for a pilot to receive back, arm or leg injuries when bailing out of narrow cockpits with the old Martin-Baker ejection seat. Today, with the much improved Aces II system, such injuries are rare, and there's a pretty good chance that the pilot hit the ground in good physical condition.

As for what brought down the F-16, no one is saying. However, there were no initial reports of ground fire in the area, or any tell-tale smoke plumes from a shoulder-fired SAM. If I had to guess--and it's strictly conjecture at this point--I'd say there was some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure on the jet. The F-16 has a long history of losing engines, and in a single-engine fighter, you don't fly very far when the Pratt & Whitney or GE powerplant conks out. Some of the "erratic" maneuvers described by witnesses may have been an attempt to gain altitude before ejection, and allow the pilot to point his crippled jet toward U.S. forces. The "nose dive" probably came after the pilot ejected, and the auxiliary power unit (APU) stopped providing limited power to the aircraft.

Wrecking of the jet (shown on various media outlets) revealed a "CC" tailsign and the letters "524 FS." That indicates that the jet is normally assigned to the 524th Fighter Squadron, based at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. At the time of the mishap, the F-16CG was operating from an expeditionary fighter squadron at Balad AB near Baghdad. Those units are often comprised of aircraft and pilots from several squadrons, and may be a mix of active duty, ANG and AF reserve personnel. While the aircraft was definitely a Cannon jet, there is no guarantee that a pilot from the 524th was actually at the controls when it went down. The squnadron operates Block 40 F-16s, equipped with LANTIRN pods for precision targeting.

Keep that brave Viper pilot in your thoughts and prayers, and pray for a speedy and safe return.

1 comment:

Jonny said...

very informative post. I learned new things I hadn't known before.

keep it up