Behind an Afghanistan Plane Crash: Missed Signals

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Manan Vatsyayana / AFP / Getty

A U.S. Air Force ground crew inspects an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet at Bagram air base, some 31 miles north of Kabul, on Aug. 10, 2009

Soldiers talk about rampant confusion amid mud and blood on the battlefield, but the picture is not always that much clearer thousands of feet above the fray. Sometimes, even when everything aboard a $50 million fighter jet works perfectly, the stresses of combat, accumulating slowly and insidiously, can overcome the world's best pilots. That's what happened on July 18 over eastern Afghanistan, when two Air Force officers stumbled into a series of missed signals and blown procedures. The errors combined to send their F-15E screaming into a dark mountainside in a steep, controlled dive at 550 m.p.h., according to an Air Force investigation released last week.

Pilot Captain Mark (Pitbull) McDowell, 26, and weapons-systems officer Captain Thomas (Lag) Gramith, 27, died in the first crash of an Air Force fighter in Afghanistan since the war began more than eight years ago. Coming near the end of a four-hour combat flight, the crash appears to have been the result of a series of steps, each insignificant in and of itself, but which in combination created a cascade of disaster.

On the night of the crash, two F-15Es, which specialize in ground-attack missions, had spent close to three hours supporting grunts near the Pakistan border. But on their way back home to Bagram air base, they decided to practice high-angle strafing runs against 7-ft. dirt mounds in the middle of a dry lake bed. While they wouldn't actually fire their 20mm guns, the pilots had decided to practice one of the Air Force's most dangerous missions — diving toward the ground amid mountains on a dark night. Their heavy night-vision goggles, which work by amplifying existing light, can only do so much.

The deadly sequence began when the backseat officer in the second F-15E — the plane whose pilot was in command of the two-plane mission — calculated the altitude of the lake bed at 4,800 ft. The flight manual required him to use a more precise altimeter than the device he used. He compounded that snafu when he mistakenly cited the elevation of their home base at Bagram — 4,800 ft. — as the elevation for the lake bed. That mistake apparently happened because Bagram's altitude had remained on the screen momentarily as he vainly sought to ascertain the lake bed's true elevation — 10,200 ft. Even though both planes had the correct altitude displayed on multiple displays, the four officers calibrated their strafing runs based on the erroneous lower number.

The mission commander asked McDowell if he felt "comfortable" performing the dangerous dive. "Sure," he responded. Seconds later, McDowell's F-15E began diving from 18,000 ft. After streaking through blackness for seven seconds at a speed of 420 ft. per second, the plane's collision-avoidance system audibly warned the crew to climb four times in quick succession. Large arrows pointing upwards flashed onto cockpit displays. The crew didn't respond. Video recorded aboard the doomed plane and evidence gleaned from the wreckage showed the crew did nothing to avoid the mountain or try to eject.

The investigation cited the wrong altitude for the lake bed as the key reason for the crash (neither officer aboard the second F-15E was named in the probe) but spelled out several contributing factors. The crew was tired — wearing night-vision goggles increases eyestrain and fatigue — and crashed at 2:30 a.m., the sleepiest time in the human sleep cycle. Night-vision goggles reduce depth perception, especially when there's little ambient light and the ground is flat and barren. The crew "channelized" its attention on the attack run, ignoring warning signs that danger was imminent. Finally, "expectancy" played a role. The crew had expected to dive for 10 seconds before simulating the firing of their gun. So when the warnings sounded seven seconds into the dive, their reaction times slowed because they believed they still had thousands of feet of air beneath them.

All four officers had easy access to the data that would have prevented the crash, "but tragically no one caught the mistake," the investigation concluded. McDowell, of Colorado Springs, and Gramith, of Eagan, Minn., "were dedicated warriors who lost their lives trying to maintain proficient at an attack necessary to save other Americans' lives on the ground." Their co-mingled remains are buried under a single headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.