F-35 student pilot tells how he faced an in-flight emergency

His quick thinking ability was decisive in addressing the problem.

F-35 flight emergency
An F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, takes off from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

In May 2019, Capt. Robert, a 61st Fighter Squadron student pilot, was on a training mission when he found himself faced with an in-flight emergency.

Robert called upon his human performance optimization training and saved not only himself but the F-35A Lightning II he was flying from any damage.

“I was pretty high up, about 34,000 feet, and all of a sudden everything got really quiet,” said Robert. “I tried to call my flight lead and realized I couldn’t talk to anybody. I started descending, working through my checklist and rocking my wings to try and let my flight lead know that I didn’t have a radio. As I got further into the checklist I realized I had lost one of the flight computers that was responsible for controlling oxygen, pressurization, and some parts of communication.”

Robert eventually visually communicated with his flight lead to relay the situation and decided to return to the base. As he worked through multiple checklists with additional failures, he determined that the aircraft’s landing gear could possibly collapse upon landing.

“At that point my plan was to land and if the gear collapsed as I was landing I was going to eject,” said Robert. “Luckily it didn’t and I was able to pull off to the end of the runway and shut down there and wait for maintenance.”

Robert succeeded due to his ability to keep a level head during a high-stakes emergency, and his training helped prepare him for it. Student pilots receive holistic performance training and support to optimize their physical and mental skills for the stress of flying and coping with an emergency situation. The Human Performance Team’s Fighter Tactical Strengthening and Sustainment (FiTSS) program is normal part of the F-16 and F-35 Basic Course training, and also available to all Luke AFB instructors and student at all levels.

For Robert, the incident was solved not only by his knowledge of the jet’s systems but his ability to assess the situation with composure.

“I had practiced for all this time and it worked in a way where I was able to stay calm, successfully work through everything, bring the jet back and land safely,” said Robert. “All those mental skills helped so much, and it’s not until you have the time to reflect that you realize how useful and necessary they are.”

Emergencies or life threatening situations are never ideal when flying; however, Robert believes the experience reinforced the importance of his training.

“It’s not what your hands and feet are doing to fly the jet but what you’re doing mentally to process what you’re going through,” said Robert. “How you can improve that whole process has been my biggest take away for it.”

Source: 56th Fighter Wing PA
Image: USAF