The Complex

Exclusive: How Diplomacy Helped Cause an F-18 Crash

High over Afghanistan, a two-man team of U.S. naval aviators found itself in trouble April 8 after an aerial refueling mishap damaged their supersonic F/A-18F Super Hornet. Turbulence ripped the fighter away from an Air Force KC-135's refueling hose, leaving a piece of the tanker's refueling apparatus attached to the Super Hornet and causing the fighter to suck airborne fuel through its right engine. It began to stall, and a piece of the tanker plane remained stuck to the fighter as the aircraft parted ways.

What followed was a series of miscommunications and judgment mistakes that ultimately forced the $60 million fighter -- call sign "Victory 206" -- into the North Arabian Sea. The aviators safely ejected about 1.5 miles from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the aircraft carrier to which they were trying to return, according to the findings of a new Navy investigation. And while the primary causes of the mishap were attributed to the aircrew failing to recognize the severity of the damage and land their plane in Afghanistan, officers aboard the aircraft carrier effectively took one of their options -- landing at the closest airfield in Oman, a U.S. ally with ties to Iran -- off the table because it would have caused diplomatic headaches for the United States, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act.

Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula near Yemen, has two main airfields available to U.S. planes in distress, according to the Nov. 7 findings of the investigation into the Super Hornet's crash. The first, and preferred, option would have been an Omani air force base on Masirah, an island off the country's southeastern coast. However, the other option -- the international airport in Muscat, Oman's capital -- was 84 miles closer to the fighter when it requested permission to land there minutes before it crashed in the North Arabian Sea, Navy investigators found.

Navy officers aboard the Eisenhower denied the troubled aircraft's request, noting there were "significant sensitivities regarding diverting U.S. military aircraft, even unarmed, into Muscat," according to the report. The pilot did not clearly communicate how dire the situation was at the time, but there also was a perception that Muscat was basically off-limits to the jet.

"Although weather conditions [were] the reason that VICTORY 206 did not divert to Muscat, there is widespread perception that although it is listed as one of two primary divert fields for carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea ... it is not a viable option due for diplomatic reasons," the Navy investigation found.

The decision was made as U.S. diplomats met secretly with Iranian officials in Muscat to hammer out a bilateral agreement on Iran's nuclear ambitions. The discussions began in 2011, but reportedly shifted to include higher ranking officials picked by President Obama in March -- the month before the Super Hornet would have landed there.

A Pentagon official, Navy Cmdr. William Speaks, confirmed that Navy pilots are discouraged from landing in Muscat. While pilots are allowed to land in Oman's capital in an emergency, the high volume of air traffic and limited facilities there has led the United States to push aviators to use other airfields whenever possible, he told Foreign Policy. Still, it does happen occasionally. Two aircraft with the Navy strike group currently deployed with another aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, have been diverted into Muscat, most recently on Dec. 7.

"We work closely with our Omani partners as each situation warrants," Speaks said. "The Defense Attaché Office in the U.S. Embassy Muscat maintains an on-call duty person to handle emergency landings and coordinate with our Omani partners."

State Department officials referred comment to the Pentagon.

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The problems began for the Super Hornet about halfway through a scheduled eight-hour mission over Afghanistan. The plane, part of Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 103, of Oceana, Va., took off from the Eisenhower around 8 a.m. the morning of the crash to provide close-air support to ground troops in the combat zone. The refueling mishap happened after the fighter and the KC-135 tanker plane hit turbulence near thunderstorms, jarring the refueling boom, documents say.

The aircrew of both the damaged Super Hornet and another fighter pilot who could see the distressed plane from his own aircraft underestimated the problems that had taken root. They determined the aircraft was damaged, but thought the plane was capable of flying back to the Eisenhower, Navy investigators found. Had the situation appeared more serious right away, they likely would have landed the plane at Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling coalition base in southern Afghanistan, the pilot of the other fighter later told investigators. However, the pilot of the downed aircraft said he felt discouraged from doing so because the Eisenhower did not have a group of service members serving in Afghanistan to maintain the carrier's jets.

The aircrew of Victory 206 did not relay the full extent of the damage to the aircraft, or that a piece of the tanker's refueling apparatus was still attached to the fighter, Navy documents say. The determination was initially made that the Super Hornet would make one pass at landing on the Eisenhower, and then be diverted to the Omani air base in Masirah if it couldn't land on the aircraft carrier. A senior Navy commander listening to discussions about what to do over military radio grew concerned, however, and diverted the jet directly to Masirah, believing doing so had the best chance of allowing the fighter to land safely.

The Super Hornet's aircrew was ordered to jettison three bombs totaling about 2,200 pounds that it still had on board to lighten the aircraft, and to proceed to Masirah. Two requests from the pilot to land in the Omani capital were denied. Naval officers directing the aircraft from the Eisenhower were aware of the diplomatic sensitivities of doing so, but poor weather -- aircrews could see less than one mile -- also played a role in the decision, Navy documents say. As conditions for the aircraft continued to deteriorate, however, the Super Hornet was told to turn back to the Eisenhower because of fears that it wouldn't have enough fuel to get to the air base in Oman.

The Super Hornet experienced a series of additional problems as it closed in on the aircraft carrier, including a struggle to deploy its landing gear, Navy documents say. Then, its good engine flamed out -- and the pilot pulled the ejection handle less than 1,000 feet above the North Arabian Sea.

"The mishap pilot blacked out momentarily upon ejection, but regained consciousness as he was floating under his parachute," Navy documents say. "He sank approximately 10 feet before his [life preserver] automatically inflated. As his mask was still on, he was able to breathe while submerged."

The pilot sustained severe lacerations to his hands and was "bleeding profusely." His backseat weapons systems officer, meanwhile, was not even aware an ejection was coming, and also blacked out momentarily. He, too, regained consciousness while floating in 76 Farenheit degree water with his parachute on top of him. They were rescued by a helicopter crew from the Eisenhower, and eventually recovered from their injuries, Navy documents say.

The Navy determined the Super Hornet crew should not be found responsible for the mishap. However, it also criticized them for not recognizing the severity of the damage to their aircraft early on and communicating it to higher command. While the fighter was eventually diverted to the Eisenhower and Oman, it could have landed safely in Afghanistan when the air crew was still there, the investigating officer said.

"With a damaged right engine and inability to airborne refuel, the crew of VICTORY 206 should have realized the severity of this situation and the cascading effects that could compound this emergency," the investigation found. "Despite the lack of [an] air wing maintenance detachment [in Kandahar], a suitable airfield was available in Afghanistan to safely land this aircraft."

Still, the investigating officer did address the confusion about Oman. He called for the Navy to forward a copy of the investigation's final report to Vice Adm. John Miller, the commander of U.S. Navy Central Command, which oversees the service's operations in the Middle East and southwestern Asia. The admiral's staff, the investigating officer said, should continue to see Muscat as a "viable divert option."


Super Hornet Crash - North Arabian Sea by Dan Lamothe

Defense Department photo

The Complex

This Congressman Kept the U.S. and China From Exploring Space Together

Long-serving Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia announced his retirement on Tuesday -- a move that's being met with cheers across America's, and the world's, space community. The congressman has repeatedly, consistently used his position as chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee to thwart international cooperation in space.

Perhaps his most consequential -- and most ridiculous -- legacy: Year after year, Wolf did everything he could to utterly prevent NASA from working with China in any capacity.

Space is unique in its borderlessness; a satellite could fly over dozens of nations in a single orbit. It is also mind-bogglingly expensive, so cooperation between national space programs -- sharing the massive costs and risks -- is very common, and increasingly so. Because of its inherently international status, everything about using space -- from communications frequencies to orbital slots -- has to be hammered out by international agreement, or at least discussed among the international community. China has one of the foremost space programs in the world, and it lags behind only Russia and the United States (and in some cases Europe) in virtually all measures. (And in some others China has pulled ahead.) On the topic of space, where international cooperation is so crucial not simply for coordination of national programs but cooperating for mutual benefit, it would be terribly counterproductive to wholly ignore such a participant, wouldn't it?

Not according to Wolf. Under legislation sponsored and largely championed by Wolf, NASA is wholly prohibited from spending money on any collaboration with China. That means no NASA employees attending Chinese-sponsored conferences, it means no calls to the Chinese National Space Agency on NASA phones, it definitely means no putting components or scientific instruments on one another's spacecraft (for reference, NASA's Curiosity rover has crucial parts and instruments from Canada, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia, and many others). "If my Chinese counterpart comes here, I'm forbidden to even buy him a cup of coffee," said one high-ranking NASA employee after yet another Wolf missive landed on his desk.

In fact the U.S. ban means a one-or-the-other choice for other nations: Because the United States cannot collaborate with China on any international projects, partners must all spend money either in a U.S. partnership or a Chinese one. It is said that China wanted to buy in to the International Space Station consortium, a program that could certainly use the money, but was barred from doing so by U.S. refusal. So China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, and is planning a much larger and more capable follow-on. In scientific and economic realms, U.S. institutions are busy forging bonds in China that affect the policy of both governments. Space can be a unique, mutually beneficial stage for collaboration and geopolitical trust-building measures; instead, it is currently a matter of distrust and fear.

Few doubt (at least publicly) that Wolf's concern is genuine. In 1996, before most of these regulations, a Chinese rocket carrying an American satellite blew up after launch, and China used the subsequent investigation to get the secrets of the satellite's design. The result was a modification of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law, placing satellites, spacecraft, and related components solidly on the United States Munitions List (USML) and removing authority to reclassify from the president. Placement on the USML means long and arduous reviews by the government to even discuss relevant plans with foreign nationals. The change was a disaster for the U.S. space manufacturing industry. The space industry is both highly competitive and highly international, and the new demands added costs and complications that many foreign companies simply declined to bear.

A famous incident was that of Bo Jiang, a contractor working on optics at NASA Langley. Suspicion first fell on Bo when Rep. Wolf held a press conference to declare that anonymous NASA employees had advised him of security lapses regarding Bo, who was detained at the airport before his departure to China. At the same press conference, Wolf called on NASA to take down all public information for a security review, including the voluminous NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) that contains virtually the sum-total of NASA's scientific studies, and begin a massive review of all foreign nationals at NASA. Bo was released, cleared of espionage, and NTRS came back online with almost zero changes. NASA, highly technical administration that it is, employs and contracts a large number of foreigners, and the disruption was enormous.

This is but one issue stemming from Wolf, at great frustration to NASA's employees. Wolf's legacy in preventing cooperation with China will almost certainly be reversed eventually -- the costs of such stringent legislation are simply too great to ignore. In the meantime, Wolf's retirement will bring an end to one of the most adversarial relationships NASA has with its political overseers.

Who replaces Wolf at the subcommittee's helm is yet to be determined, but it is difficult to envision another chairman so disparaging. Many NASA employees will breathe a happy sigh of relief tonight.

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