12:40:48: Mission control tells pilot to climb to 23,000 feet. 12:41:34: Bank angle warning activates, telling crew that the pilot has exceeded more than 50 degrees bank. Mission commander calls for maximum power and focus on the aircraft’s instruments. 12:41:38: Stall warning activates as the aircraft slows. The aircraft climbs toward 20,900 feet. 12:41:43: Background noise on recorder picks up items flying around cockpit, signifying a spin. 12:41:45: “Whoa, pull up” the pilot says, trying to counter the spin. 12:41:54: “Eyes inside, my aircraft, power back.” The mission commander takes control of the aircraft as the plane descends at a rate of 116 nautical miles per hour. 12:41:58: The overspeed warning activates, telling the pilots that the aircraft is descending at a rate of more than 245 knots. 12:42:00: Gear warning horn activates, indicating throttles are idle. Time from stall warning ending to overspeed warning is 15 seconds, indicating an extreme nose-down position. 12:42:23: Last radar return indicates the aircraft is dropping at 316 knots. Contact is lost at about 15,000 feet. 12:43: Aircraft crashes into a valley about 110 nautical miles northeast of Kandahar Air Field. Next: F-16 investigation: Pilot killed while ejecting
Two crashes. Three months. Five airmen dead.
Separate accident investigations detail the final moments of an F-16 pilot’s training flight over the Adriatic Sea, and a four-member MC-12 crew’s intelligence-gathering mission in Afghanistan.
Both show the desperate moments before the crash, the confusion, and the calm voices trying to guide the pilots through spatial disorientation during bad weather.
Here are their stories.
MC-12 felled by stall, spin
An unrecoverable spin brought on by an aerodynamic stall sent an MC-12W Liberty hurtling to the ground, killing all four crew members onboard.
The aircraft crashed April 27 during an intelligence-gathering sortie out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The crew encountered heavy clouds and tried to pull up. That’s when the aircraft began to stall.
“The cause of the mishap was a stall due to insufficient airspeed, while in a climbing left turn, which developed into a left spin followed quickly by a left spiral, from which the crew was unable to recover,” the Air Force’s official Accident Investigation Board report states.
But the crash investigation also highlights the downside of rushing a much-needed intelligence asset in Afghanistan, sending experienced pilots from other aircraft communities into the war zone after logging about 40 flight hours in the new plane.
The limited training and experience of the pilot and mission commander are among three contributing factors, along with weather and “increased risk” of rushing the MC-12W into service, according to the 39-page investigation report.
In the cockpit were two pilots with thousands of hours of flight time and instructor work, but on other platforms.
The April mission was both the first flight in Afghanistan and the first combat flight in an MC-12 for pilot Capt. Reid Nishizuka, 30, of Kailua, Hawaii. His regular job was flying the EC-130H, which he had flown 2,434 hours. He had been transferred to the MC-12 and assigned to the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where his work had met or exceeded all standards, according to the report. He had flown 41.7 hours on the MC-12W, only 21 of them as the primary pilot.
The crew’s mission commander was Capt. Brandon Cyr, 28, of Woodbridge, Va. Cyr was an an experienced KC-135 pilot with the 906th Air Refueling Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., temporarily assigned to the Liberty, and was expecting to return to the Stratotanker after the nine-month temporary duty. He had 1,749 flying hours, mostly on the KC-135, and 201.5 hours on the MC-12W. He was qualified as a “certifier” in April to fly and train new MC-12 pilots. This was his first flight as a certifier.
Both Cyr and Nishizuka were highly rated on the MC-12.
Like the pilots, the crew in the back had experience on other aircraft but were highly rated on the Liberty.
The sensor operator was Staff Sgt. Daniel Fannin, 30, of Morehead, Ky. His regular aircraft was the E-3 Sentry, in which he had flown 2,360 hours, and was assigned to the 552nd Operations Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. He had already deployed with the MC-12 and had 1,057 hours of combat flying experience in the Liberty. The report said that his performance “significantly exceeded all standards.”
Staff Sgt. Richard A. Dickson, 24, of Rancho Cordova, Calif., was the tactical systems operator on the flight. An experienced cryptologic operator and Korean linguist, he had 1,494.6 hours in six different aircraft types and was assigned to the 306th Intelligence Squadron at Beale.
A hurried aircraft
Like the crews that fly it, the MC-12W has a disjointed history and was hurried to the battlefield to address the high demand for surveillance aircraft.
In April 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Defense Department to identify new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance needs in Central Command. The Air Force was told to buy 37 “C-12” class aircraft and load them up with sensor equipment.
The Air Force was under severe pressure, and the troops on the ground needed coverage from unmanned vehicles. But the service could not procure MQ-1B Predators and MQ-9 Reapers at a fast enough rate, so they outfitted a civilian aircraft.
The MC-12 is a modified Beechcraft King Air 350, a twin propeller-driven aircraft typically used to shuttle people around, or modified for uses such as air ambulances. The Air Force quickly outfitted the aircraft with sensor systems, and by April 2009 delivered the first combat-ready MC-12. It flew its first combat sortie in June 2009, little more than a year after Gates ordered the study.
Now-retired Maj. Gen. James Poss served as director of intelligence in Air Combat Command during the beginning of the MC-12 program. He said procurement was done quickly and safely, with enough testing.
“But the problem we ran into was that we had to man a substantial number of aircraft,” Poss said. “I don’t care what kind of aircraft they come from, they are forced to take them out of other weapons systems. They had to come from somewhere.”
Air Combat Command had to work quickly to organize manpower billets to deploy the MC-12s and assign airmen who were not all permanently assigned to the aircraft, he said.
“It was done for all the right reasons. ... They save lives every day,” Poss said. “They are putting their lives on the line for fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And unfortunately, we had a tragic accident.”
The MC-12 is a workhorse in Afghanistan, providing real-time video of the battlefield to commanders and troops on the ground.
In November 2009, it reached its 1,000th combat mission. In October 2011, it reached 50,000 flight hours and had “led to the capture or elimination of more than 4,000 targets,” according to an Air Force statement announcing the accomplishment.
It was that type of mission the crew was tasked with on April 27.
The crew got an early start that morning at Kandahar, leaving the squadron planning room 15 minutes early to get out on the flightline and get the aircraft ready. Its call sign for the day was “Independence 08.”
“The crew had ample time to perform all preflight duties and appeared upbeat and ready for the mission,” the report states.
Preflight was normal, the crew had maintenance check out minor issues with gauges that ended up correcting themselves. They took off at 11:57 a.m. local time and went to work, sometimes encountering weather that forced them to rely on instruments.
The clouds grew thicker. The crew retracted the sensor cameras, and at 12:40 p.m., decided to climb higher and out of the weather. That’s when the confusion began.
“All right, go ahead and push up the power,” Cyr told Nishizuka. “I asked for [23,000 feet] for now just to keep us out of this for a little while anyway. So, go ahead and climb to 230. And as soon as you’re ready.”
“Oh, we’re already approved?” Nishizuka said. “OK, cool.”
He began to climb and the aircraft slowed.
“Yup, as soon as you’re ready you can go direct to that new start point and ...” Cyr said.
“Yeah, once we make this turn here I’ll get that set in there,” Nishizuka said. “It’s ready to be inserted.”
“Oh, cool. I’ll let you do your business then,” Cyr said.
The aircraft climbs and continues to slow down as the pitch increases.
“Cool. So once we make this turn I’ll keep the roll going and then, uh ... a little slow. Correcting,” Nishizuka said.
This is when the pilot first acknowledges the airspeed slowing. If more power is used at a high angle of attack, the MC-12 tends to roll to the left.
“All right, firewall,” Cyr said, using a term that means use maximum power.
Nishizuka pushes the throttle full forward, an aural tone indicates that auto-pilot is turned off. At 12:41:33, the plane’s video feed cuts out because of the unusual position the aircraft is in. The plane is going 116 nautical miles per hour.
“Max power, max power,” Cyr said. “All right, eyes inside,” he tells Nishizuka, advising him to use the plane’s instruments instead of looking outside for hints.
A stall warning blares. Another indicating an excessive bank angle goes off. An altitude-encoded transponder return shows the aircraft is at a maximum altitude of 20,900 feet.
“Max power,” Nishizuka said.
The stall warning turns off. In the background, the recorder picks up items flying around the cockpit, a hint that the aircraft entered a spin, the report states.
“Whoa, pull up,” Nishizuka said, pulling back on the yoke to try to counter the spin.
“Eyes inside, look at your airspeed,” Cyr said. “Look at your airspeed.”
The bank angle warning blares again.
“Eyes inside, eyes inside.” Cyr said. “My aircraft, power back.”
The mission commander takes over as the aircraft descends past 18,000 feet, dropping at 116 knots.
“Your aircraft,” Nishizuka said.
It’s 12:41:58 p.m., just over a minute since the crew first attempted to pull up through the weather, and they are in a spin. More warnings blare, one notifying the pilots that the airspeed is now more than 245 knots. The gear warning sound goes off, which indicates the throttles had been pulled toward idle.
The aircraft falls past 14,700 feet. At 12:42:23, the last air traffic control radar signature shows that the aircraft is at a ground speed of 316 knots.
A minute later, the aircraft crashes into a valley about 110 miles northeast of Kandahar. It is destroyed upon impact, landing slightly nose low in a left bank, with minimal forward momentum, according to the report.
A nearby MC-12 from another unit was called in for search and rescue and found the crash site. A crowd of about 30 gathered around the debris, prompting two F-16s and two A-10s to show force and disperse the crowd. A ground team and helicopter team gathered the remains.
At 4:35 p.m. local, they reported “4 heroes recovered.”
Brig. Gen. Donald Bacon, the president of the accident investigation board, wrote that the official cause of the crash was the stall caused by insufficient airspeed while in the climbing left turn, followed by an unrecoverable high-speed spiral. The weather also impeded visibility.
Two other contributing factors cited by Bacon relate to the immature state of the MC-12 program: pilot inexperience in the Liberty and known risks associated with sustaining the MC-12 in theater, Bacon wrote.
The urgency of the MC-12 program caused several aspects of it to not be “normalized,” causing increased risk and the deployment of the aircraft with inexperienced aircrew, he wrote. There have fast-tracked training, and mission commanders are typically deployed with only about 20 hours of MC-12 primary flight time.
“These program risks are most visible from a human factors perspective in organizational training gaps and limited pilot experience,” Bacon wrote.
The pilots received limited training on orbit stalls, and four other “near misses” show the need for more of this type of training, the report notes, particularly during bad weather.
The report, however, acknowledges the desperate need for manned surveillance in Afghanistan.
“Increased risk in fielding the MC-12 has been accepted because of the MC-12W’s substantial combat capability and urgent requirement,” Bacon wrote. “The MC-12W has found and tracked over 700 high value enemy combatants, leading to their death or capture. Additionally, the MC-12W provides daily over-watch for our ground forces, which has enabled countless coalition forces to return home alive and free from injury.”