Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Anatomy of a plane disaster in Afghanistan

December 13, 2009


In July this year,  a U.S. Air Force F-15E supersonic fighter crashed into a dark mountainside in eastern Afghanistan killing both crew members.  While there have been several helicopter accidents, crashes by supersonic jets are a rare occurrence especially in a country where the enemy doesn’t have the weapons to threaten them.

So what went wrong ? Time magazine published the results of an Air Force investigation last week and it suggests that the “stresses of combat , accumulating slowly and insidiously, can overcome the world’s best pilots even when everything aboard a a $50 million fighter jet works perfectly.”

The deadly sequence of events began late at night when a pair of  the F-15E or Strike Eagles were on their way back to Bagram air base after a four-hour mision near the Pakistan border, supporting ground troops. Just then, the pilots decided to practice high-angle strafing runs against dirt mounds in the middle of a dry river bed.

It is arguably one of the Air Force’s most dangerous misions — diving toward the ground amid mountains on a dark night. Yes, the pilots were wearing night vision goggles, but because they work by amplifying the existing light, they can only do so much. 

A simple miscalculation of the lakebed’ s elevation led to the crash, the investigation showed.  The altitude was calculated at 4,800 feet,  when the figure should have been 10,200 ft . So the pilots calibrated their strafing run based on the wrong figure and then began streaking through the darkness at supersonic speed.  Time says the plane’s collision avoidance system warned four times as it hurtled down, but presumably there was too little time left. The pilots didn’t even try to avoid the mountain they slammed into, or eject.

Tragic as the crash was, it reminds you that while  ground soldiers talk of rampant confusion in the battlefield amid blood and mud, the picture can often get fuzzy miles above in the skies. And that men and machine are constantly being pushed to the limits.

Noah Shachtman, writing in the  Danger Room blog, which focuses on military affairs, gives you a sense of the conflicting pressures operating on the air force. There is a phrase in the eight-year-old Afghan war that has become one of the most abused called  “TIC” or troops in contact or in simple language that troops are exchanging fire with the Taliban insurgents. Often, as soon as a TIC is reported, air cover is called for.  

“What started as a cry for help has now come to mean … well, almost anything,’ he says, adding that over the past year covering the air war he has seen TICs “opened” because rockets were fired in the general vicinity of a rather large base even though the immediate danger to Western forces was negligible. He has seen TICs remain open for up to nine hours, long after the bullets stopped flying.

Indeed each night, he says the airmen of the operations headquarters decide where they were going to deploy the planes in Afghanistan the following day.  It’s amiracle the plans last for more than an hour; invariably a TIC is reported, the planes are shuffled and before you know it, the grand blueprint is in the dustbin.

[A U.S. air force F-15E jet at Bagram]

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