High over Afghanistan, a two-man team of US naval aviators found itself in trouble April 8 after an aerial refuelling mishap damaged their supersonic F/A-18F Super Hornet. Turbulence ripped the fighter away from an Air Force KC-135’s refuelling hose, leaving a piece of the tanker’s refuelling 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 recognise 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 Defence Attaché Office in the US 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.
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 8am the morning of the crash to provide close-air support to ground troops in the combat zone. The refuelling mishap happened after the fighter and the KC-135 tanker plane hit turbulence near thunderstorms, jarring the refuelling 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 refuelling 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 totalling 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 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 US 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.”–Foreign Policy