A jet aircraft can outperform its pilot, and that’s what happened in 2016 when an Arizona Air National Guard pilot passed out after pulling too many Gs in an F-16.
The aircraft was headed for the ground, like a missile — a bad situation. Normally, a final situation.
Suddenly, the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, known as Auto-GCAS, kicked in.
The aircraft took over, pulling out of the dive and righting the Falcon — the pilot regained consciousness and grabbed the controls, not even realizing what had just happened.
As legendary fighter pilot Chuck Yeager would say, he “screwed the pooch.”
Lucky for him, Auto-GCAS, which was developed by NASA, had saved his life, not to mention a fully functioning aircraft. Both would live to fight again.
Meanwhile, it appears this cutting-edge technology may have just saved another pilot’s life.
According to Military.com, the US Air Force is reviewing whether an F-16 Fighting Falcon’s Auto-GCAS, kicked in during a flight last month at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Keith Wright, a spokesman for the Air Force Safety Centre, said the review process could take up to three months as investigators compile data sources.
“The Air Force remains focused on finalizing every review in a timely manner through a conclusive process that takes into account all available data related to the incident,” he said.
Wright said Auto-GCAS has saved 10 lives in the F-16 community over the last few years, the report said.
It has saved nine aircraft from crashing into the ground; one incident involved a two-seater aircraft, resulting in 10 lives saved to date, he said. The last confirmed save occurred in January 2020.
Auto-GCAS — which is currently being fielded in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet — was developed in the 1990s, but early versions had data issues, the report said.
It was re-engineered between 2003 and 2010 and has been in use by the Air Force’s F-16 fleet since 2014. As of 2016, it had been installed on more than 600 F-16 aircraft.
The system is “a flight control logic” that uses a digital terrain elevation database “to calculate the aircraft’s relative position above the ground,” Wright said.
“If it senses that the aircraft is on a collision course with the ground that is outside of normal parameters, it automatically commands the aircraft to roll wings level and executes a recovery to prevent flight into the ground,” he said.
For example, if a pilot loses consciousness, the system kicks in.
The sensors that feed into it take into consideration the terrain below, the aircraft’s trajectory and speed, and the human inputs, or lack thereof, to calculate how best to recover the jet and return it to a smooth trajectory, the report said. Once the aircraft is at a safe altitude, the system will return control to the pilot.
All newer F-16s — Block 40s and above — with digital flight controls have Auto-GCAS. Older F-16s, such as those with analog flight controls, will incorporate the system in the next couple of years, the report said.
Last year, units at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Hill Air Force Base, Utah, began installing Auto-GCAS on the F-35A variant — seven years ahead of schedule.
The stealth jet test flights with the system began at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2018.
There have not been any F-35A saves to date, Wright said.
“Ninety-two percent of US Air Force and Air National Guard F-35As have loaded Auto-GCAS capable software as of July 28,” he added.
Researchers at NASA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Safety Oversight Council, the Air Force Test Center, and Lockheed Martin worked together as a highly integrated team to develop an innovative technology that combats controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) — the leading cause of fatalities in fighter aircraft.