ABOARD USS CARL VINSON, OFF THE COAST OF SAN DIEGO — When an F-35C Joint Strike Fighter on Jan. 24 struck the back of aircraft carrier Carl Vinson while coming in for a landing, careened across the flight deck and fell into the South China Sea, flight deck crew responded within seconds to begin firefighting efforts.
Within 45 minutes, the ship had fully recovered and was ready to launch and land aircraft again, leaders tell Defense News.
A defense official, who asked for anonymity because he’s not allowed to comment publicly while investigations into the ramp strike are ongoing, described to Defense News the seconds and minutes after the crash, which injured seven.
“When the mishap happened, we had additional aircraft airborne that needed to land,” the official said. “The training kicked in immediately.”
The F-35C ripped out all four arresting gear wires, which are used to catch the tailhook on a jet and stop them on the flight deck. There was also significant debris scattered around the deck, including in the catapult tracks used to launch aircraft off the flight deck.
The official said the top concern was clearing the debris so that an F/A-18E-F Super Hornet, sitting ready to act as a tanker and refuel other aircraft in the air wing if needed, could be launched as soon as possible. The official said the crew conducted four or five so-called foreign object debris walkdowns to ensure no other aircraft were damaged as a result of the first crash.
The airborne aircraft were diverted to another U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, operating nearby and refueled.
“Within 30 to 45 minutes, we were ready to receive aircraft” after replacing all four arresting wires, the official said. “We got things cleaned up and ready to go so we could be right back in the fight.”
Ultimately, those aircraft returned to Carl Vinson that evening, just hours after the ramp strike.
The official praised the crew for not only being quick to respond, but also adapting on the fly. A helicopter is in the air during flight operations to serve as a search and rescue platform if needed. The helo was able to quickly pluck the F-35C pilot out of the water, but, due to the flight deck cleanup effort and the front of the flight deck being filled with parked jets, the helo landed on the carrier’s elevator to get the injured pilot back onboard quickly, the official said.
“We adapted to the situation we had,” the official added.
Capt. P. Scott Miller, the commanding officer of Carl Vinson, told reporters during a two-day visit on Feb. 13 and 14 it was “rewarding” to see proof the crew’s emergency training had been effective.
“The ship’s crew and the air wing came together and provided the perfect response. To me, what that validated was our entire training track, where we do our workups with all of the training organizations back home, prepared us perfectly,” Miller said.
The F-35 crash was the fifth “class A mishap” for Carl Vinson and its Carrier Air Wing 2 since Nov. 22, Navy Times previously reported. Two involved Super Hornets — one an emergency error code that popped up during flight, the other a small fire, one involved an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter doing anti-submarine warfare operations with a dipping sonar that was ripped away from the helo, and another involved a CMV-22 that had an engine fire.
Miller said the four mishaps were “handled perfectly” and all aircraft involved “will be restored to full functionality.”
However, the Navy is still investigating who leaked photos and video of the F-35 mishap.
“It’s challenging today in our information environment where everybody’s got a phone in their pocket, and every phone’s got a camera, and within an instant you can take a picture and share it with 100 people,” Miller said. “It becomes very difficult to find out who took the photo.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.