The U.S. Air Force’s flyover at the National Football League’s 2015 Pro Bowl game was a “moderate risk”, an official assessment says. But the troublesome F-35A stealth fighters involved weren’t the reason.
On Jan. 24, four F-35As from the 56th Fighter Wing flew over the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona before the start of the NFL’s annual all-star game (see the video below). This flight was the first time these troublesome aircraft had performed any sort of public demonstration — a major public relations boost for the controversial program.
Officials with the 56th put the sorties in the moderate risk category, according to data from the unit’s internal risk management tool the author obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The outing was also a “complex mission” conducted at “low level”, the readout explains. The moderate risk level is the second lowest of four classifications that start at “low” and go up to “severe”. For missions that fall in the first two categories, the supervising officer can approve the plan. When a severe risk is involved, the commander of the 56th Operations Group has to sign off on the flights. A “complex mission” is any operation that involves more than four aircraft. However, the tool doesn’t explain how close to the ground aircraft have to be before a mission is considered “low level”.
These risk assessments are routine, but perhaps especially prudent when F-35s take to the skies. In June 2014, all of the high-tech jets were grounded after the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine in one of the planes burst into flames at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The accident was just the latest chapter in the jet’s troubled development. After numerous delays, the Pentagon says the Air Force variant will cost almost $150 million each—and experts expect the final price tag to be much higher.
A month later, the aircraft returned to the skies, but with significant limits on how long they could stay up in the air and what maneuvers they could perform. As a result, the Pentagon and their counterparts at the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense canceled plans to send the fifth-generation fighter jets to the prestigious Farnborough Air Show. “While we’re disappointed that we’re not going to be able to participate in the airshow”, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear admiral John Kirby told reporters, “we remain fully committed to the program itself and look forward to future opportunities to showcase its capabilities to allies and to partners.” (Jim Garamone, “F-35 Returns to Limited Flight, Officials Rule Out Farnborough“, US Department of Defense, 15.07.2014).
The Pentagon’s restrictions on high speed aerobatics remain in place, a public affairs officer at the 56th told the author. But despite these and other vexing problems, the dangers encountered during the Pro Bowl spectacle do not appear to have had anything to do with the aircraft themselves. The 56th had no alternate pilots or aircraft on standby. “It’s a matter of being on time when you’re flying this type of flyover”, Major Michael Artiges, the assistant director of operations for the F-16-flying 308th Fighter Squadron, told military reporters after the operation. “The type of aircraft and formation plays an important role as well.”
In fact, a total of six aircraft — with the call sign “Top Dog one through six” — actually took off from Luke Air Force Base in the morning primarily for training, the public affairs official explained. The risk assessment would have covered this “air combat maneuvering” too. Just practicing aerial combat can be quite dangerous. Four months ago, two F-16 fighters from the Oklahoma Air National Guard collided during a training session. One jet crashed and the other lost a wing. Thankfully, both pilots survived the accident.After finishing their maneuvers, four of the F-35s broke off for the flyover. The other two planes returned home. With the stadium sitting less than 10 miles from Luke Air Force Base, the pilots didn’t get much extra flying time out of the detour. “We can see the stadium from our tower,” the officer at the 56th noted. And while the risk report describes the timing of the flight as “Night (High Illum)” — short for illumination — the fliers had the benefit of significant daylight when they zoomed over.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits the Pentagon from performing any of these demonstrations 30 minutes after the official “civil twilight” time has passed. Civil twilight is the FAA’s official definition of when the night begins, but light from the sun still brightens the sky from over the horizon for some time afterwards.
Still, the F-35s had to deal with blimps and small planes all while crossing over unfamiliar territory during the short flight. Civilian air traffic controllers would have been in charge of clearing the path for the Air Force’s jets.
Given all of these factors, most Air Force demonstration flights — including performances by the famous Thunderbirds (see the video below) — are probably at least moderately risky. On the other hand, the mission also doesn’t seem to have been especially taxing. With the F-35’s current litany of issues, maybe that was the point.