On April 27 a crash killed Air Force Capt. Brandon Cyr and three others aboard an MC-12W spy plane that Cyr commanded in Afghanistan. It was the first crash to occur since the Air Force launched the highly successful MC-12W program more than four years ago.
But shortcomings in aircrew training, especially in how to avoid and recover from an orbital stall, had led to four previous near-stalls, according to an Air Force report on the crash.
The fatal crash and four near-stalls stemmed, in large part, from the Air Force's sense of urgency to get the highly valued spy planes into the skies over Afghanistan.
The Air Force's haste with regard to MC-12W crew training "led to several aspects of the program not being normalized, which created increased risk, particularly aircrew inexperience and lack of instructors in the combat zone," wrote Brig. Gen. Donald J. Bacon, the investigation board president.
This problem was most acute regarding the relative lack of aircrew training regarding stalls, which occur when the aircraft wing is no longer creating enough lift to support the aircraft's weight, causing the nose to pitch down.
The relative lack of stall training for MC-12W crews is significant because "a typical mission sortie includes substantially more time in orbit than in any other phase of flight, and the orbit is flown relatively close to stall speed," according to the report.
What's more, "Four previous MC-12W orbit stalls that resulted in significant, near-catastrophic altitude loss highlight this limited training," according to the report.
The official cause of the crash of Independence 08, the call sign of the MC-12W Liberty under Cyr's command, was a stall caused by low airspeed.
The report called Cyr, the mission commander, the pilot, Capt. Reid Nishizuka, and the sensor operators, staff sergeants Richard Dickson and Daniel Fannin, "highly respected airmen and combat veterans with 4,845 combat flying hours and 836 combat sorties between them."
The report noted that Cyr had logged 1,749 flight hours in the KC-135 air tanker, and was on temporary duty from Scott Air Force Base with the MC-12W. Nishizuka had logged 2,434 hours in the EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, a C-130 Hercules transport plane modified to carry an arsenal of electronic gear to disrupt enemy communications.
While Nishizuka had deep experience as an EC-130H pilot, he had relatively little experience flying the much smaller MC-12W -- only 41.7 flying hours, according to the report.
In addition, at the time of the crash, Nishizuka had not flown into combat in a MC-12W before, and it was his first sortie of any kind in 45 days, Bacon wrote.
Nishizuka's lack of familiarity with the MC-12W's controls affected "his visual scan and instrument crosscheck proficiency..." Bacon wrote. "This delayed detection of the pitch, the decreasing airspeed, and the imminent stall."
Nishizuka's inexperience also delayed his ability to respond effectively to the spin the MC-12W went into and delayed the prompt reduction of power, Bacon wrote.
Finally, it was also Cyr's "first flight as a newly qualified certifier who was just completing his second month of his first MC-12W deployment," Bacon wrote. "This explains his delayed intervention in both preventing the stall and recovering the MA (mishap aircraft)."
Bacon noted that 20 percent of MC-12W pilots rotate into and out of Afghanistan each month, making it "not uncommon for pilots to fly together for the first time on a combat sortie, such as happened in this mishap."
Unfamiliarity hampers crew coordination, and "the result of this program risk is inexperienced MC-12W pilots deployed in combat, and inexperience substantially contributed to this mishap."
In response to questions from the News-Democrat, the U.S. Air Force announced a list of changes to MC-12W air crew flight training. A special emphasis will be placed on ensuring that aircrews learn how to detect and recover as quickly as possible from flight stalls, said Col. Phillip Stewart, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., which oversee MC-12W training.
"We're trying to give our students more robust stall awareness and recovery training," Stewart said. "So we're tryng to give them better training on how to recognize an impending stall."
The changes call for the Air Force to:
* Provide more flight hours and additional sorties for aircrew "spin-up" training, prior to deployment.
* Provide more stall training in all three phases of training: initial qualification on simulators at Beale AFB; mission qualification during actual flights at Beale; and continuation training after the end of Beale training.
* Deploy more instructor pilots to and training teams to Afghanistan.
* Teach pilots in Afghanistan to increase minimum orbit speeds to at least 140 knots per hour, to provide a larger margin above the stall speed.