The U.S. Air Force plans to equip F-16s with automatic crash avoidance systems by spring 2014, a move expected to save 10 pilots and 14 jets over the lifespan of the aircraft.
Research on the Ground Collision Avoidance System, conducted by Air Force pilots and NASA engineers, is expected to wrap up in January, according to F-16 contractor Lockheed Martin.
The system is designed to pull a jet out of an impending ground collision and will lead to development of other systems for use on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor, said Lt. Col. Robert Ungerman, director of operations for the 416th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
“Preserving wartime assets is one big piece, but preserving the pilots’ lives and the anguish of families is a huge deal,” Ungerman said.
Testing began in fall 2011 at Edwards. Engineers test the system by programming a false ground level into the jet’s computers to make it react as if it is flying too close to the ground. The system creates a predicted trajectory, and when that prediction comes into contact with the simulated terrain, the autopilot engages. The jet can then engage a roll-to-upright and 5G climb until the system projects it is far enough from the ground, Ungerman said.
The crash avoidance system should not interfere with strafing missions, low-level flights and other routine F-16 operations, according to the Air Force. The software will work with the other hardware on F-16s.
While analysis is not complete, flight test data suggest that the system is meeting its design goals and is on schedule for the 2014 installation on 620 F-16s, Lockheed Martin spokesman B.J. Boling said.
A group of researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Lockheed and Air Force Flight Test Center first demonstrated the feasibility of the system in 2010 as part of a Fighter Risk Reduction Program, in which the team conducted more than 2,000 auto-recoveries.
Today, testing at Edwards consists of three F-16s and seven pilots, along with some of the “sharpest engineers” coming up with the flight plans for the tests, Ungerman said.
From 1992 to 2004, the Air Force lost 24 pilots and F-16s in controlled flight into terrain crashes — a crash caused by a pilot’s spatial disorientation or loss of consciousness, not by a failure of the aircraft.
“If the technology is there to prevent that, we don’t need to lose that guy,” Ungerman said.