Valerie Schmitz, the widow of an F-16 pilot killed after a failed nighttime landing, has filed a federal civil action lawsuit against defence companies, alleging that the ejection seat was a forgery.
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According to Air Force Times, key components of the pilot’s ejection seat may have been fake, according to an Air Force inquiry into a fatal fighter jet crash in 2020.
First Lieutenant David Schmitz, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, passed away on June 30, 2020, as a result of an ejection seat malfunction while he was attempting to leave a failed nighttime landing. He was 32.
In the months after the disaster, the Air Force conducted an official investigation and discovered that the electronics inside the seat had been poorly constructed, with scratches, uneven sanding, and other flaws.
According to previously unreported slides provided to Air Force Times, that sparked concerns at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which prompted a detailed examination to determine whether the parts were fake. It’s not apparent if that question has ever been addressed.
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The Air Force concealed their suspicions that the seat’s components were fakes in a confidential section of its accident investigation report.
These facts were revealed in a federal civil action brought by Valerie Schmitz, who is accusing host defense firms of negligence and deceiving the Air Force about the safety of their equipment. Valerie Schmitz is Schmitz’s widow.
“What the military does is inherently dangerous to begin with,” plaintiff attorney Jim Brauchle said Tuesday. “If you’re going to be engaging in that kind of activity, you want to be doing it with equipment that’s going to work.”
The manufacturer of the F-16, Lockheed Martin, is being sued along with Collins Aerospace, which makes the ACES II ejection seat used on aircraft throughout the Air Force, and a number of Teledyne Technologies business units that provide the seat’s digital recovery sequencer.
When activated in an emergency, a sequencer is expected to carry out the steps of the ejection process. According to the company’s website, ejection seats on the F-15, F-16, F-22, and F-117 fighter jets, the A-10 attack plane, and the B-1 and B-2 bombers are all equipped with Teledyne products.
The ejection seat in Schmitz’s case launched 130 feet into the air but did not open its parachute. The airman hit the ground about seven seconds later while still strapped into his seat. He died on impact.
The Air Force’s official accident report, which was made public in November 2020, attributed the tragedy to Schmitz’s carelessness during his descent into Shaw and his supervisor’s recommendation to try a tail hook landing rather than ordering Schmitz to eject early.
That, according to Brauchle, glosses over Schmitz’s actual cause of death.
“What ultimately killed him was the ejection seat failure,” he said. “It has only one job, and that’s to get the pilot out and to get out a [parachute].”
Schmitz’s death was partially attributed to a sequencer malfunction, but no additional information was included in the public accident report.
However, according to slides from the Air Force Research Laboratory dated August 3, 2020, the agency believed that a number of the transistors and microchips inside the sequencer were fake. The slides were received by Valerie’s legal team via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Six transistors were described in the complaint as having “no conformal coating, were heavily gouged, had arcing scratch marks, were considered obsolete and were suspected of being counterfeit.” The term “partially dislodged” refers to a capacitor that may have suffered damage as a result of handling.
According to the Air Force Slides, suppliers Atmel, Analog Devices, and Siliconix provided the possibly fake transistors, memory chips, and accelerometer chip.
According to the lawsuit, the lab discovered indications that Teledyne had disposed of case-related material. The sequencer had five microchips that Teledyne seemed to have replaced before sending it to the lab.
“Teledyne had removed the printed wiring board from the DRS (pdf below)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.”
The lab acknowledged that it wasn’t certain which of those components was to blame for the ejection seat malfunction.
“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 expect learning whether the components were revealed to be fake through the court discovery process. The Pentagon’s supply chain has long been plagued with counterfeiting, and contractors frequently aren’t aware of the inferior products they are supplying.
“The DoD is aware of this problem and is working to eliminate these components from supply chains,” the Air Force Research Laboratory said.
The reliability of the sequencers is also a point of contention for the plaintiffs. In 2012, the Air Force Safety Center advised replacing the sequencer with more durable hardware.
The Air Force used sequencers longer than intended, including on Schmitz’s fighter plane, due to delays in that replacement effort.
Contractors allegedly evaluated 60 sequencers in 2017 and 2018 to monitor any potential degradation. Three were marked for more scrutiny. Two of the three units, according to Teledyne, would have performed well in an ejection.
According to the lawsuit, the firms failed to disclose whether the third unit passed the test two years after the testing. Nevertheless, the lawsuit claimed that the Air Force relied on the test results when it opted to keep using the sequencer that wound up in Schmitz’s F-16.
The plaintiffs are now requesting a jury trial to recover damages, which may reach millions of dollars.
The complaint alleges that the contractors failed to notify the F-16 community and the general public about the seat’s faults, violated South Carolina law, misrepresented the seat’s airworthiness, and were negligently supervised by Lockheed.
Brauchle suggested that Valerie might find some solace in a successful trial after losing her husband, her network of military friends, and the support of the Air Force.
“‘Here’s your [life insurance payment], here’s your outbrief, see you later,’” he said of the Air Force’s response. “Then she feels like they’re not giving her the whole truth, and that hurts even more.”
Plaintiffs claimed that because of a federal law enforcement investigation, the Air Force had obstructed further information demands. The government is permitted by law to suppress information that is “expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” according to a recent statement to the legal team.
“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.
According to Brauchle, the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits active duty soldiers from suing the military for the majority of damages sustained as a result of their service, shields the Air Force from being identified as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Rose Riley, a spokesman for the Air Force, refrained from commenting on the allegations stated in the lawsuit.
“We are not tracking this court case or any related investigations,” she said Tuesday.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Air Combat Command, which is in charge of the F-16 aircraft, and the Air Force Safety Center were among the Air Force agencies that declined to answer to inquiries from Air Force Times.
Leslie Farmer, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, declined to comment on ongoing legal matters. As of Tuesday press time, other attorneys and representatives for Lockheed, Collins, and Teledyne had not commented.
By the end of September, the defendants are obligated to submit a response to the court.
Schmitz’s accident reopened the topic of safety measures for military pilots in Washington. According to the Air Force Safety Center, 89 persons have died in Air Force accidents since 2012. Six of those occurrences involved an F-16.
According to reporting by Military.com from the previous year, there were issues with the airman’s ejection seat repairs and if he had been forced to fly a training mission at night and perform things he had never attempted before.
Schmitz’s seat hadn’t been repaired in three years due to a lack of spares. Despite knowing that the issue may become fatal, the Air Force delayed fixing it, according to Military.com.
Congress enacted a law after he went away mandating the Air Force and Navy to replace their ejection seats twice a year.
Legislators are interested in knowing how many seats are placed at each operational flying base and how many have a waiver allowing them to be used even though they require maintenance or new parts. They also demand more disclosure of the dates and signatures associated with each waiver.
Congress scheduled to get the first report on February 1.
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