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Locator beacons for Air Force ejection seats failing at 'unacceptable' rate

Downed pilots face 1-in-4 chance of AN/URT-44 not working

Feb. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Air Guard flight crews undergo water survival trai
Two pilots from the Texas Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio are raised out of the water during refresher aircrew water survival training at Canyon Lake near San Antonio. Beacons intended to locate downed pilots failed in 10 of 22 incidents since being installed in 2011, according to the US Air Force. (Master Sgt. Jack Braden/US Air Force)
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Two pilots from the Texas Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio are raised out of the water during refresher aircrew water survival training at Canyon Lake near San Antonio. Beacons intended to locate downed pilots failed in 10 of 22 incidents since being installed in 2011, according to the US Air Force. (Master Sgt. Jack Braden/US Air Force)

Performance of the AN/URT-44 beacon since 2011:

IncidentDateAircraft Pass/Fail
1April 1, 2011A-10Fail
2June 7, 2011F-16CPass
3Sept. 26, 2011A-10Pass
4Oct. 24, 2011F-15CFail*
5March 21, 2012F-16CPass
6, 7March 28, 2012F-15E1 Pass 1 Fail*
8, 9May 3, 2012F-15E2 Fail
10May 4, 2012F-16CPass
11July 22, 2012F-16CFail
12Nov. 15, 2012F-22Fail
13Dec. 27, 2012F-16CPass
14Jan. 28, 2013F-16CFail
15May 28, 2013F-15CPass
16,17June 26, 2013F-16D1 Pass, 1 Fail
18Aug. 1, 2013F-16CPass
19, 20, 21, 22Aug.19, 2013B-13 Pass, 1 Fail
* Failure due to circumstances outside beacon system
Source: Air Force

For three days, the family of Capt. Lucas Gruenther waited while rescuers searched for the F-16 pilot in the Adriatic Sea.

Gruenther, the chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, had ejected from his F-16 in poor weather off the Italian coast. And while an Italian and American fleet combed the Adriatic, Gruenther’s family gathered together and hoped for good news.

“It was terrible weather, terrible visibility,” Gruenther’s mother, Romel Mathias, said of the January 2013 search. “They didn’t have a rescue plan for him.”

Like all other Air Force planes equipped with ejection seats or parachute packs, Gruenther’s contained what was supposed to be a lifeline — the AN/URT-44 locator beacon to help search and rescue crews find a downed pilot.

But for Gruenther and nine other pilots outfitted with the beacon since it went into service in 2011, the locator failed. Searchers recovered his body three days after he ejected. An investigation found he died during the ejection.

“It cost our family three days of hell, basically, not finding him,” Mathias said. “I just can’t understand why, when they knew that so many of [the beacons] were not in correct working order, that they would let those guys fly with those.”

The Air Force spent $30 million for 17,000 of the beacons in 2009, with deliveries finalized in 2010. Two years after the first beacons were installed, crash investigators began noticing that they had not worked in multiple crashes. In fact, the beacons failed 10 times in 22 ejections, according to a review of crash reports since the beacons were installed. Two of the failures were caused by external issues, such as problems with how the beacon was packed or the impact of the ejection, the Air Force said. When tested on the shelves, the URT-44 has a 24 percent failure rate, according to Air Force documents.

Now, the Air Force faces spending $69 million to start over with all new beacons.

“I just can’t believe that with all of the technology now, with all of the avalanche finders you can go find for 300 bucks, that they would let those guys fly with those,” Mathias said.

Aircrew 'guardian angel'

The Air Force announced its plans to purchase the AN/URT-44 beacon from prime contractor Signal Engineering Inc. in 2008. The previous beacon, the AN/URT-33, was in the entire fleet, but it was not compatible with changesto frequencies used by the Air Force’s search and rescue satellite system.

Signal Engineering “met all required performance parameters” following “the successful completion of rigorous field trials and environmental testing,” the San Diego-based company announced in a 2009 news release.

“The state of the art AN/URT-44, the guardian angel of the aircrew, has become the personnel locator beacon of choice for the United States Air Force,” states a training video produced by Signal Engineering, sent to the Air Force and publicly viewable on YouTube.

The company’s president, John Thompson, said he believes the problems were identified during testing, and has told the Air Force his company can fix them. However, the Air Force largely cut off contact with the company once service officials decided to replace the beacon, he said.

“We’ve done the best we can. We can do as much as we are allowed to mitigate the circumstance, but we don’t have access to the information,” he told Air Force Times in a Jan. 30 interview.

By August 2010, the service finished installing the new beacon in all aircraft with ejection seats, except the F-35, and in parachute packs for aircrew in planes such C-17s and C-130s, said Col. Aaron Clark, the deputy director of the global programs power directorate, agile combat support, at the Pentagon, who oversees beacon procurement.

The first real test for the beacon came April 1, 2011. The pilot of an A-10C assigned to the 81st Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, was forced to eject during a training flight. According to an Air Force review of the mishap, the beacon failed.

“The [pilot’s] personal locator beacon’s power was extremely low during transmission,” the investigation report for the crash states. “The [wingman] was only able to hear the [beacon] when within two nautical miles of the crash and no Air Traffic Control agency was able to hear the beacon.”

The pilot crashed near a village, and locals found the wreckage and helped the pilot before search and rescue crews arrived.

Over 2½ years, the AN/URT-44 beacon failed nine more times.

The Air Force expects to replace the entire inventory by 2015, Clark said. Contractors placed their bids in January, and the Air Force is reviewing its options and planning more rigorous tests for the beacons.

“We still fly with it, it’s the beacon we have today,” Clark said. “. . . If there are promising beacons, which we expect there are, we will do testing to have confidence that we aren’t going to buy into a similar problem that we already have.”

Turning point

The mishap that started the biggest review of URT-44 beacons was also one of the most publicized rescue operations of a downed fighter.

On July 22, 2012, an F-16C, call sign Jest 73, assigned to the 35th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, was flying as part of a four-ship formation to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The flight included a tanker, and after the fourth refueling, Jest 73 reported his engine had lost thrust. He began to lose airspeed and altitude. The pilot jettisoned his external tanks and went through checklists when his engine shut down.

After four attempts to restart the Falcon’s engine, the pilot decided to punch out about 250 miles north of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

The pilot ejected at about 11:16 a.m. local time. “Good chute,” he radioed. There were no malfunctions noted, except for the beacon.

The URT-44 experienced a complete failure “rendering it unusable to the [pilot],” the investigation of the crash states.

The pilot’s wingman,Jest 72, was able to radio the approximate coordinates to the formation and command. It was clear daylight. The tanker in the formation circled back to become the on-scene commander.

After a six-hour search through the waters off the Japanese coast, a Japanese research boat, the Hokkou Maru, picked up the pilot and passed him along to an American ship, and eventually to the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska.

Everything came together for a rescue that could have been shorter, had the beacon worked. The Air Force published news releases on the rescue, thanking the Japanese mariners and air mobility crews for their part. But, in private, this mishapprompted a thorough review of the entire URT-44 inventory.

“So that made us realize that ‘OK, there’s something systemically wrong that we need to go address,’ ” Clark said.

Failures in the inventory

The 100 percent inspection found a 24 percent failure rate across the entire inventory. The program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, began what it called HALT — a Highly Accelerated Life Cycle Test.

“It proved that the inventory items didn’t work the way we want them, it also proved that even though we made improvements . . . we still had a high failure rate,” Clark said.

The tests showed no “smoking gun,” he said. Some of the beacons had bad batteries. Others had problems with microchips. Once testing was complete, “we knew we had to replace the URT-44,” he said.

Johnson said Signal Engineering was involved in every step of the HALT. During briefings each week, the Air Force told the contractor that the fixes worked. Company officials believed they could solve the known issues, but the Air Force did not provide the final testing report, Thompson said.

“All the known issues are known,” he said. “If we don’t know about it, then who knows about it? We fixed every single one of those. Based on the [weekly] reports [from the Air Force], we understood everything was going fine.”

The company has responded to the most recent call to contractors for the new beacon.

“We want to be a responsible supplier. We believe we solved all those problems,” Thompson said. “But if [the Air Force] isn’t going to communicate with us, I’m not sure what [they] want us to do.”

The Air Force, in response to questions from Air Force Times, said Jan. 31 that officials will meet with Signal Engineering this month to discuss the beacon and issues that arose during the 2012 testing. However, so many problems arose in the HALT that service officials “knew we had to replace the URT-44,” Clark said.

On Sept. 25, 2012, two months after Jest 73 was rescued off the Japanese coast, Maj. Gen. James Hyatt, director of operations, strategic deterrence and nuclear integration for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, sent a memo to fighter wings in the command that the URT-44 beacons were experiencing a 24 percent failure rate. He directed pilots to continue flying with the beacons and ensure that they are proficient in the operation of Combat Survivor Evader Locator radios, the main connection between a downed pilot and rescuers, provided the pilot is able to use the radio and speak. Similar memos were sent out in Air Combat Command and Pacific Air Forces, according to the Air Force.

All the while, the beacons kept failing.

On Nov. 15, 2012, an F-22 pilot flying near Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., ejected and his beacon failed.

Two months later, the worst scenario for the failed beacon was realized.

The crash in Italy

Gruenther took off the night of Jan. 28, 2013, as the lead of three F-16CMs and one F-16DM for a training sortie over the Adriatic Sea. The pilots used night vision goggles to fly through the darkness and poor weather. They were forced to abandon plans for one mission and instead focused on two simulated bomb drops.

Flying in a team of two, Gruenther flew his simulated bomb drop mission, which included a “last ditch” defensive maneuver and recovery, as a way to simulate responding to the threat of a surface-to-air missile. He pulled his Viper to the right, nose down, rolled to stabilize at 150 degrees, banked left, again nose down.

The F-16 descended, accelerating past 400 knots and 17,700 feet. This is when spatial disorientation kicked in.

“CLAW 1 missile overshot,” he radioed.

“CLAW knock it off, I’m spatial D,” he said, telling his wingman to stop training and focus on him.

His F-16 was flying 45 degrees nose low, sideways at 90 degrees with the left wing down. Warnings began to blare.

“Look at the round dials, disregard the HUD,” the wingman radioed, referring to the cockpit’s heads-up display. “1, status your round dials.”

Gruenther couldn’t regain control. At 7:49:24 p.m., he ejected. Because of how fast and the angle he was flying, he immediately lost his helmet. The seat launched at a left yaw, with slack in the harness, causing him to snap back with the force of 40 Gs. He died instantly.

The F-16 crashed and was destroyed in the rough sea. Gruenther’s body fell to the water, with his emergency locator beacon a complete failure.

“The PLB from the [aircraft] seat did not function as designed,” the report states. “The [pilot’s] PLB did not alert any local aircraft or radar stations via the emergency guard frequencies . . . the recovered [aircraft] ejection seat showed the PLB selector seat switch was set to AUTO.”

At 7:55 p.m., the supervisor of flying for the mission told the radio control tower that “no emergency locator transmitter had been heard by any of the aircraft airborne.”

At 7:58 p.m., search and rescue began. It would take three days, with a combined force of Italian Coast Guard ships, Italian Air Force helicopters, a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and F-16s from Gruenther’s unit to find the remains of the pilot lost at sea.

Mathias works as a nurse in California, and is trained for the “golden hour” — the optimal window of time for responding and treating a patient who has sustained a traumatic injury. If Gruenther had survived the ejection, a working locator beacon would have been critical for getting him the trauma care he would have needed, she said.

“If Lucas happened to be alive, he would have died in the water because they couldn’t find him,” Mathias said.

Following the crash, pilots at Aviano began to fly missions with their personal cell phones in plastic bags because they didn’t trust the locator beacon, until leadership told them they couldn’t anymore, Mathias said.

Fail-safes in place

Air Force officials say there are a series of fail-safes and multiple options for search and rescue, including the use of the pilot-activated Combat Survivor Evader Locator radio, flight plans and the eyes of wingmen to guide rescuers. Pilots are trained in survival, evasion, resistance and escape. The Air Force’s pararescuemen are specially trained to locate and recover downed airmen.In almost all of the recent ejections, including the six-hour rescue off the Japanese coast, the training and failsafes worked. In Italy, they didn’t.

The Air Force continues to fly with the URT-44 beacon because it has the other equipment and procedures available to search for downed pilots.

“The beacon itself is not an item that is going to cause an issue during an ejection,” Clark said. “The beacon is one of a system of overlapping capabilities that we use to provide the means for the aircrews to tell people where they are.”

But the overlapping capabilities cannot work in every instance, Mathias said, pointing to her son’s crash. Pilots are trained to react when they are awake, but they cannot respond when unconscious, Mathias said.

“You are going hundreds of miles an hour, ejecting out of a plane and landing God knows where,” she said. “Most of the guys have, at the least, fractures. There’s head injuries, neck injuries, they cannot call for help.”

'Unacceptable risk'

After the Aviano crash, there were four other crashes involving planes with beacons. The beacons worked in two of the crashes, but in two others, at least one beacon failed:

■ On May 28, an F-15C assigned to Kadena Air Base, Japan, crashed in the ocean approximately 70 miles east of Okinawa. The beacon worked in this mishap, the Air Force said, and the pilot was quickly recovered.

■ On June 26, the instructor and student pilots of an F-16D at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., were forced to eject. The beacon on the student pilot failed because of a faulty battery.

■ On Aug. 1, two F-16s assigned to the Washington, D.C., Air National Guard collided off the coast of Maryland. One pilot was forced to eject over the water, and the beacon worked. The transmitter sounded through the other F-16’s and an upgrade pilot’s communications systems. The pilots relayed the GPS coordinates, and the downed pilot, who was injured, was rescued by the Coast Guard.

■ On Aug. 19, the four-man crew of a B-1B Lancer ejected in Montana. Three of the beacons worked, but one didn’t because its battery was dead.

The failed beacons caught the attention of Lt. Gen. Lori Robinson, vice commander of Air Combat Command.

In a Dec. 4 memo to acquisition officers in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, she asked for an expedited replacement of all beacons.

“Recent real-world failures of the AN/URT-44 Personnel Locator Beacon have highlighted an unacceptable failure rate in fielded [beacons],” Robinson wrote. “. . . The projected timeline to field a replacement beacon using the normal acquisition process is late FY16. This delay would subject unacceptable risk to ejection equipped aircraft due to the potential of incapacitation characteristic in high speed ejections.”

In December, the Air Force published the request for information for the replacement, with a deadline of Jan. 13. The office is reviewing the applications, with a goal of replacement throughout the fleet by the end of 2015, Clark said. The Air Force cannot name the companies that submitted bids, but said that just three applied for the contract the first time around in 2009.

The contract is for a non-developmental replacement, meaning it needs to be equipment that can be bought and installed directly off the shelves, Clark said. The service is looking at what partner nations and other services, such as the Navy, use, but the beacon needs to be compatible with Air Force-specific systems, such as ejection seats. For example, the beacon installed on the F-35 wouldn’t work in the rest of the fleet because of differences in the ejection seat systems.

The service has budgeted $15 million for the first phase of the replacements for ejection seats. The second phase will include parachute packs for all aircraft, with an estimated cost of $54 million. Air Combat Command has also expressed interest in finding an upgraded system that can transmit location as well as voice transmissions.

“We realize that there’s a problem, and we’ve been going through a deliberate process to ferret out what are the issues with the beacon,” Clark said. “We’ve figured that out. We’ve determined that we want to replace the beacon. We have a plan in place and we are executing that plan.”

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