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The USAF Sides With Defense Contractors to Keep the Widow of a Fighter Pilot From Knowing Why Her Husband Passed Away

For USAF First Lieutenant David Schmitz, the Tuesday evening flight out of South Carolina's Shaw AFB was his first night-time proficiency flight in an F-16 which belonged to the 77th Fighter Squadron, a squadron that seems to have a “Wild Weasel” mission. Schmitz, 32, was expected to refill during the flight and then execute a simulated Suppression of Air Defences (SEAD) operation. Schmitz, however, was not successful during the aerial refueling process and aborted the mission after which he returned to the base.

When nearing the base, Schmitz, an Airman with the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw, misinterpreted the approach lighting system. He failed to identify where the runway began, hitting the localizer antenna array on the ground and “severely damaging the left main landing gear,” according to Air Combat Command.

The aircraft briefly touched the ground, then tried to circle back and land again. Shaw Airmen attempted to land the plane by catching the jet on a cable at the beginning of the runway, but the cable missed the tailhook. Damage to the landing gear caused the plane’s left wing to hit the runway.

Schmitz ejected from the fighter after missing the cable, but his parachute never deployed. He died after hitting the ground while still in the seat, according to the release.

The F-16CM is equipped with the Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES) II, which is supposed to be capable of ejecting in any landing gear failure scenario while traveling at speeds up to 200 knots. Schmitz’s aircraft was going 120 knots, or about 138 mph, when he ejected.

“Based on the airspeed and altitude of the ejection, the mishap seat should have initiated a Mode 1 ejection,” the report said. “As the seat exits the aircraft, the Digital Recovery Sequencer is activated, which is responsible for providing seat stabilization, pilot/seat separation, and parachute deployment. For a Mode 1 ejection, the seat’s drogue chute is not used, expediting the deployment and inflation of the personnel parachute.”

However, there was a “critical failure” when the seat left the aircraft, and six of seven “pyrotechnic devices” that should have activated did not.

The main point is that 1LT Schmitz was killed due to an equipment malfunction and not due to an accident on the flight. In an Air & Space Forces Magazine article, the report was titled Pilot Error, Ejection Seat Problems Caused Fatal F-16 Crash and published just four months after the crash and acknowledged the ejection seat issue but seemed to put the blame on maintenance procedures for the squadron and the lack of spare components.

Accident investigators also found two related maintenance issues with the mishap aircraft. The first was the failure to install a shorting plug on the DRS [Digital Recovery Sequencer] electronic module, which is designed to prevent noise bias issues in channel three.

“Two of the three channels must be in agreement for the DRS to function properly. DRS failure due to channel three noise bias issues have been observed in approximately 9 percent of all live ejections and sled tests,” according to the report.

A time compliance technical order was issued on Jan. 20, 2016, and work was to be completed on the mishap aircraft seat on Aug. 28, 2017, but it was not completed because not enough parts were available.

Second, the DRS’s 10-year life span expired on Feb. 28, 2019, but the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center issued three temporary extensions because parts once again were not available.

In a classified annex of the accident report, Air Force investigators found an issue that they refused to reveal. The ejector seat was not capable of working because the components that were installed by the manufacturer might have been counterfeit or were poor-quality items. The information was made public due to a lawsuit brought by the widow of Schmitz, Valerie, against Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-16, Raytheon subsidiary Collins Aerospace, as well as a number of Teledyne Technologies business units.

Six transistors “had no conformal coating, were heavily gouged, had arcing scratch marks, were considered obsolete and were suspected of being counterfeit,” the complaint said. A capacitor that may have been damaged while it was handled was “partially dislodged.”

Suppliers Atmel, Analog Devices and Siliconix provided the potentially counterfeit transistors, memory chips and accelerometer chip, according to the Air Force slides.

The lab also found signs that Teledyne had destroyed evidence related to the case, the lawsuit said. Teledyne appeared to have replaced five microchips on the sequencer before sending it to the lab.

“Teledyne had removed the printed wiring board from the DRS housing and had mounted the [board] to a ‘test fixture,’” the lawsuit said. “Teledyne had cut the leads on Channel #2′s parallel flash memory chip to facilitate chip removal.”

Still, the lab said it wasn’t sure whether any of those parts caused the ejection seat to fail.

“The parts … are strictly considered suspect at this time,” AFRL wrote in 2020. “Destructive analysis on these components, and analysis of components on other DRS boards, would be required to provide [a] higher level of confidence in whether or not they are counterfeit.”

Plaintiffs hope to learn through the legal discovery process whether the components were proven fake. Counterfeiting has plagued the Pentagon’s supply chain for decades, and contractors are often unaware they are providing faulty materials.

“The DoD is aware of this problem and is working to eliminate these components from supply chains,” the Air Force Research Laboratory said.

Plaintiffs are also questioning whether the sequencers meet the Air Force’s standard of reliability. The Air Force Safety Center recommended in 2012 that the sequencer be replaced with more reliable hardware.

Delays in that replacement effort led the Air Force to continue using sequencers longer than intended — including on Schmitz’s fighter jet.

Think about that for a moment. One of the parts that failed in Schmitz's ejection was recommended to be replaced nearly a decade earlier. One of the major Defense contractors provided false material to be tested. In addition, the Air Force publicly blamed Schmitz for the crash while also concealing crucial details. They also shut closed their ranks behind the Defense contractors.

Plaintiffs said the Air Force has stonewalled further requests for information due to a federal law enforcement probe. A recent response to the legal team cited a law that allows the government to withhold information that is “expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

“Any responsive documents to your request are not releasable to you at this time. … Your request has been closed,” wrote Roxanne Jensen, head of OSI’s FOIA branch, to Valerie’s legal team on June 22.

This is a terrible in every way. The flying of high-performance aircraft is risky even when operating in optimal conditions. The risk of your life on an aircraft that has unsafe or poorly manufactured components is not a wise choice. The risk of putting the lives of men whose lives are dependent on the operation of a properly functioning aircraft ought to be a crime and should be dealt with at least as severely as trespassing in the US Capitol grounds.

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