Two Australian Air Force pilots are being praised for their expert response to a dramatic engine malfunction that saw their advanced electronic warfare plane skid across a US runway before catching fire.
The RAAF’s newly delivered EA-18G Growler was taking part in military exercises and was just about to take off from the Nellis Air Force base outside Las Vegas when the emergency occurred on January 28.
More than six months on from the fiery mishap, the Defence Department has confirmed the damaged Growler has since been “withdrawn from service” and the department has begun examining how it can recover the cost of the aircraft, believed to be worth $120 million.
“The investigation into the EA-18G Growler aircraft incident at Nellis Air Force Base has been completed and was provided to the Chief of Air Force on July 30, 2018,” the Defence Department said in a statement.
Now senior military figures with knowledge of the investigation have detailed the circumstances of what has been described as the “most serious incident of its kind for the Australian Air Force in more than 25 years”.
Seconds later, pilots would have had to eject
One officer who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity revealed the aircraft’s engine “destroyed itself” while in full power during the attempted take-off.
“The two pilots did an incredible job to stay with the jet and keep control to avoid hitting other aircraft parked nearby,” the RAAF officer told the ABC.
“Had the incident been a couple of seconds later, they would have been committed to the take-off and likely would have had to eject after clearing the runway.”
The investigation has confirmed a high-pressure compressor in the Growler’s engine had broken into three major pieces, with one segment piercing the bottom of the jet and taking a chunk out of the runway.
Another piece of the compressor went sideways through the second engine causing severe damage, while the third piece went up and destroyed the right-hand tailfin before flying away and landing some distance from the jet.
As the jet came to a halt, the rear fuselage was engulfed in fire, the main undercarriage collapsed, and two of the three ALQ-99 electronic jammer pods it was carrying were severely damaged.
The Growler is a specialist electronic warfare and attack aircraft that is only flown by the US and Australia, and carries jammers and sensors capable of disrupting or jamming electronic networks.
The Defence Department says it is exploring options for the “recovery of economic losses resulting from the incident” now that the aircraft has been assessed as “beyond economic repair”.
“Due to contractual arrangements, this process is expected to take a period of time,” the Department said.
Senior Defence figures say any compensation claim would likely go first through the US Navy, then to the airframe manufacturer Boeing, then to engine maker General Electric, and finally to the engine component supplier.
The RAAF has 11 jets remaining in its Growler fleet but is yet to decide whether it will replace the damaged aircraft.