A $201M maintenance error: Air Force releases cause of F-22 crash at Eglin AFB in 2020

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — Last year's crash of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation has been traced to "a maintenance error made after the aircraft was washed, which impacted control inputs transmitted to the aircraft," according to a Wednesday email from the Air Force's Air Combat Command.

The F-22, assigned to the 43rd Fighter Squadron of the 325th Fighter Wing, crashed on the morning of May 15, 2020, about 12 miles northeast of the main section of Eglin during what the Air Force described as a routine training mission.

The pilot ejected safely and there were no injuries on the ground, but the aircraft, valued at $201 million, was destroyed. Parts of the 325th Fighter Wing were moved to Eglin from nearby Tyndall AFB in 2018 as Hurricane Michael bore down on Panama City and eventually laid waste to the installation.

From 2020: Eglin AFB releases additional information on Friday F-22 crash

Due to what an Air Combat Command spokeswoman on Wednesday called "operational security concerns," an Accident Investigation Board report, which would have been subject to public release, was not pursued in connection with the F-22 crash. "Operational security" is a risk management process designed to keep sensitive information from falling into unintended hands.

Instead, the spokeswoman said the crash was probed through a commander-directed investigation and a Safety Investigation Board. Neither of those reports are subject to public release, but are intended for internal Air Force use.

Safety investigation boards typically comprise six to 10 officers and senior enlisted personnel, headed by a colonel. Accident investigation boards, on the other hand, are headed by a senior pilot and include another pilot along with a “maintenance expert, flight surgeon, judge advocate and any other needed specialists," according to the Air Combat Command website.

From 2020:F-22 Raptor crashes on Eglin reservation; pilot ejects safely

And according to the Office of Inspector General for the Secretary of the Air Force, commander-directed investigations can be used "to investigate systemic (or procedural) problems or to look into matters regarding individual conduct or responsibility."

A single paragraph in Wednesday's email providing what the spokeswoman called key details of the Safety Investigation Board report and the commander-directed investigation, notes that "(u)pon takeoff, the pilot noticed a Flight Control System advisory and elected to continue with takeoff. Shortly after the aircraft became airborne, the pilot began having trouble controlling the aircraft and declared an emergency. While a recovery plan was being coordinated, the pilot continued to have issues with the aircraft and ejected."

Flight control systems comprise the parts of the aircraft that move to change its direction, height and other flight characteristics, and includes the cockpit controls for those aircraft surfaces. The F-22 Raptor is a "fly-by-wire" aircraft, in which the pilot's control inputs are translated electronically to move the jet's flight control surfaces.

An F-22 Raptor (foreground) and an F-35 Lightning II, both like the aircraft that crashed in separate May 2020 incidents at Eglin Air Force Base, fly along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Air Combat Command will not release any additional information on the crash, according to the command spokeswoman. 

The F-22 crash was one of two aircraft crashes that occurred within days of each other in May of last year at Eglin. On the night of May 19, 2020, an F-35 fighter jet from the 58th Fighter Squadron of the Eglin-based 33rd Fighter Wing crashed on landing. As with the F-22 crash, the pilot safely ejected but the aircraft, valued at $176 million, was destroyed.

Technically, the F-35 crashed as a result of the pilot leaving a "speed hold" feature of the aircraft engaged during landing, a subsequent shallow flight angle that contributed to severe bouncing on the runway, and the pilot's lack of success in getting the aircraft airborne again for a second landing attempt, according to an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) report released late last year.

But the AIB report also cited pilot fatigue, as well as issues with the F-35's oxygen delivery system and the flight information display in the pilot's helmet, along with apparent differences between the F-35 simulator and the actual aircraft, as contributing factors in the crash.