An F-16 pilot died when his ejection seat failed. Was it a counterfeit?

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An Air Force investigation into a fatal 2020 fighter jet crash quietly discovered that key components of the pilot’s ejection seat may have been counterfeit, the Air Force Times has learned.

First Lt. David Schmitz, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, died June 30, 2020, when his ejection seat malfunctioned while trying to escape from a failed night landing. He was 32 years old.

The official Air Force investigation in the months following the crash found that the electronics inside the seat were scratched, sanded unevenly, and showed otherwise shoddy craftsmanship.

This raised red flags at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which called for further examination to confirm whether the coins were fraudulent, according to previously unreported slides provided to Air Force Times. It is not known if this question was ever answered.

While the Air Force suspected parts of the seat were counterfeit, it buried the information in a non-public section of its accident investigation report.

Those details were revealed in a federal civil lawsuit filed by Schmitz’s widow, Valerie, which is suing three defense companies for Air Force negligence and deception over the safety of their products.

“What the military is doing is inherently dangerous to begin with,” plaintiff attorney Jim Brauchle said Tuesday. “If you’re going to engage in this kind of activity, you want to do it with equipment that’s going to work.”

Case in U.S. District Court in South Carolina targets F-16 maker Lockheed Martin; Collins Aerospace, which builds the ACES II ejection seat installed on Air Force aircraft; and several business units of Teledyne Technologies, which manufactures the digital HQ recovery sequencer.

A sequencer is supposed to perform the steps of the ejection process when triggered in an emergency. Teledyne’s product is used in the ejection seats of the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-117 fighter jets, the A-10 attack aircraft and the B-1 and B-2 bombers in the whole world, according to its website.

In Schmitz’s case, the ejection seat fired 130 feet in the air but failed to deploy its parachute. The airman hit the ground about seven seconds later while still strapped into his seat. He died instantly.

The public version of the official Air Force accident reportreleased in November 2020, blamed the incident on how Schmitz mishandled his descent into Shaw, as well as his supervisor’s suggestion that he try a landing with a tail hook instead of telling Schmitz to s eject earlier.

Brauchle argues that this glosses over the true cause of Schmitz’s death.

“What ultimately killed him was the ejection seat failure,” he said. “He only has one job, and that is to release the pilot and release a [parachute].”

The public accident report acknowledged that the sequencer malfunction contributed to Schmitz’s death, but gave no further details.

According to Air Force Research Lab slides dated August 3, 2020, however, the service suspected that several transistors and microchips inside the sequencer were fake. Valerie’s legal team obtained the slides through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Six transistors “did not have a conformal coating, were heavily pitted, exhibited arc scratches, were considered obsolete, and were suspected of being counterfeit,” the complaint states. A capacitor that could have been damaged during handling was “partially dislodged”.

Suppliers Atmel, Analog Devices and Siliconix supplied 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, according to the lawsuit. Teledyne appears 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 mounted the [board] to a “test fixture,” the lawsuit said. “Teledyne had cut the wires on the channel #2 parallel flash memory chip to make it easier to remove the chip.”

AFRL: Digital Recovery Sequencer

Still, the lab said it was unsure whether any of these parts caused the ejection seat failure.

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

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

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

Complainants also question whether the sequencers meet Air Force reliability standards. The Air Force Safety Center recommended in 2012 that the sequencer be replaced with more reliable hardware.

Delays in this replacement effort resulted in the Air Force continuing to use sequencers longer than intended, including on Schmitz’s fighter aircraft.

To keep tabs on potential damage, contractors tested 60 sequencers in 2017 and 2018, according to the lawsuit. Three have been flagged for further evaluation. Teledyne found that two of the three units would have functioned correctly during an ejection.

Two years after those tests, according to the lawsuit, the companies had not said whether the third unit passed the muster. Still, the Air Force relied on the test data when it decided to continue using the sequencer that ended up in Schmitz’s F-16, according to the lawsuit.

Now the plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial to recover damages that could total millions of dollars.

Complaint accuses contractors of wrongful death, accident liability, misrepresentation of seat airworthiness, negligent oversight by Lockheed, failure to warn F-16 community and public of defects of the seat and violation of South Carolina law.

Brauchle said a successful trial would offer Valerie closure after losing her husband, her support network of military friends and Air Force backing.

“‘Here’s your [life insurance payment], here’s your briefing, see you later,” he said of the Air Force’s response. “Then she feels like they’re not telling her the whole truth, and that hurts even more.”

The plaintiffs said the Air Force blocked further requests for information because of an investigation into federal law enforcement. A recent response to the legal team cited a law that allows the government to withhold information that “is likely to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

“All the documents responding to your request have not been communicated to you at this time. …Your request has been closed,” Roxanne Jensen, head of OSI’s FOIA branch, wrote to Valerie’s legal team on June 22.

Brauchle said the Air Force is not named as a defendant in the case because it is protected by the Feres Doctrine, which bars active-duty troops from suing the military for most damages suffered from the doing their service.

Air Force spokeswoman Rose Riley declined to comment on the claims made in the lawsuit.

“We are not following this court case or any related investigation,” she said Tuesday.

Several Air Force organizations did not respond to Air Force Times questions, including the Air Force Research Laboratory; Air Force Office of Special Investigations; Air Combat Command, which oversees the F-16 fleet; or the Air Force Security Center.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Leslie Farmer declined to answer questions about ongoing litigation. Other attorneys and representatives for Lockheed, Collins and Teledyne did not respond to press time Tuesday.

The defendants are required to file a rebuttal in court by the end of September.

Schmitz’s accident has sparked new discussions in Washington about the measures needed to keep military pilots safe. Eighty-nine people have been killed in Air Force crashes since 2012, according to the Air Force Security Center. Six of these incidents occurred in the F-16.

Military.com reporting last year he worried whether the Airman had been pushed too hard to complete a training sortie with tasks he had not yet attempted at night due to an upcoming deployment, and the slow ejection seat repairs.

Schmitz’s seat had not been repaired for three years due to a shortage of spare parts. The Air Force postponed solving the problem knowing that it could become fatal, Military.com reported.

After his death, Congress passed a law requiring the Air Force and Navy to provide updates on their ejection seats twice a year.

Lawmakers want to know how many seats are installed at each active flight base and how many have a waiver that allows them to be used, despite the need for repairs or replacement parts. They are also asking for more transparency regarding who signed each waiver and when.

The first report was due to be presented to Congress on February 1.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .

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