Growler Flight from Hell

By Faye Higbee

An EA-18G Growler flight back in January turned into a first class nightmare for the two man crew when the environmental control system (ECS) failed. It left the cockpit at -30 degrees with frozen instruments, windows, and only the emergency oxygen supply. They were flying blind and becoming frostbitten.

According to Defense News, they were flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet, from Washington State’s Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to Naval Weapons Station China Lake. They were about 60 miles south of Seattle at the time. Suddenly the ECS system notified them that it was icing. A mist pumped into the cockpit as the temperature inside plunged to -30 degrees Farenheit. It formed a layer of ice over both the instruments and windows. They were nearly totally blind.

Defense News reported,

The fog inside the aircraft iced over the instrument panel, forcing the pilot and electronic warfare officer to use a Garmin watch to keep track of their heading and altitude while air controllers began relaying instructions to the crew. The pilot and EWO were forced to use the emergency oxygen supply, which was completely depleted by the end of the flight.

A heroic effort by the two-person crew and the ground-based controllers managed to guide the aircraft back to Whidbey Island, but both pilot and EWO suffered serious injuries due to frostbite. The aircrew suffered from “severe blistering and burns on hands,” according to the Navy internal report.

One of the pilots is back on the flight line, the other one is still recovering and expected to be fine…thanks to a Garmin wristwatch.

The Drive noted,

Despite using up all of their emergency oxygen supply, the crew was able to wend its way its way back to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island with help from air traffic controllers on the ground and their smart watches. In July 2017, Navy Hornet, Super Hornet, and Growler pilots each got a $450 Garmin Fenix 3 wristwatch, which can measure air pressure and altitude and display an individual’s course heading. 

The service issued the watches in order to provide a backup alert mechanism in case the ECS’ on-board oxygen generation system, or OBOGS, malfunctioned and cockpit pressure dropped to unsafe levels and the aircraft’s built-in safety mechanisms and warning systems also failed. The Navy had not publicly stated that it could serve as a improvised navigational aid in an emergency.

The specific kind of incident in the Boeing Growler was a new one, but the failure of ECS systems has been ongoing in several aircraft.  Called “PE” incidents or Physiological Episodes, they have been the subject of investigations for years in the F/A-18/EA-18G and T-45 aircraft. 2016 was the worst year on record for those kinds of incidents, according to Defense News.  Sudden decompression, hypoxia, even overpressurization, have all been documented in PE incidents.

The woman at the head of the Navy’s Physiological Episodes Action Team was Sara Joyner, but she has been pulled from the position after less than a year on the job. You can read one of her reports to Congress at this link. No replacement has been named.

The Navy has been looking into the causes of such incidents, and some have been identified…but the Growler incident speaks of the dire nature of ECS failures.


Featured photo: the EA-18G Growler – via Naval Technology