An Air Force MC-12 surveillance aircraft, like the one that crashed today in Afghanistan.  Previous crashes and near-catastrophic stall incidents involving the MC-12 have been blamed on limited crew training.  Most pilots flying the MC-12 are drawn from other USAF platforms and fly the aircraft for only a few months (USAF photo via Time magazine)    

For the second time in less than a year, an MC-12 surveillance aircraft has crashed in Afghanistan.  The latest mishap, which occurred earlier today, claimed the lives of three U.S. crew members.  Details from ABC

“International Security Assistance Force service members and one ISAF civilian died following an aircraft mishap in eastern Afghanistan today,” said a statement released by NATO in Afghanistan.

A defense official told ABC News that the incident involved an MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft flying a nighttime mission over eastern Afghanistan.

MC-12′s are Beechcraft propeller aircraft that carry multiple surveillance systems that enable the monitoring of different areas at the same time. The feeds are monitored by technicians who fly in the rear of the small aircraft.

The crash comes on the same day that an ISAF spokesperson confirmed that a Blackhawk helicopter crash in mid-December that killed six soldiers was the result of “enemy action.”   While the Pentagon hasn’t released the names of the dead crew members–or their unit of assignment–the aircraft was most likely operated by the U.S. Air Force, which rushed the MC-12 into service to provide more surveillance in Afghanistan.  And that has led to problems, as detailed by Mark Thompson of Time magazine last October.  Mr. Thompson obtained details of the crash report on Independence 08, an MC-12 that went down in Afghanistan last April, killing its four-man crew.  The report highlights some of the hazards associated with taking an “off-the-shelf” aircraft, equipping it for a new mission, and manning the cockpit with pilots from other airframes, who fly the “Liberty” as a temporary duty assignment.    The previous crash, which occurred on 27 April of last year, began as a routine mission:   The plane took off from Kandahar air field at mid-day. After a 30-minute flight 110 miles northeast, the aircraft began tracing a leftward orbit in the sky, using various sensors to seek out a high-value insurgent that soldiers on the ground wanted to get.

It found him — and bad weather — about 10 minutes later. “Looking at scattered and broken 16-170, plus this giant thing we’re flying around going up to about FL240,” one of the back-seaters radioed at 12:34 p.m. Translation: there were scattered clouds beginning at about 16,500 feet above sea level, and a rapidly-rising towering cumulus cloud reaching to 24,000 feet right in front of them. The rugged terrain down below averaged about 6,000 feet above sea level.

The pilot, sitting in the left front seat of the $20 million plane, began climbing to get try to get out of the clouds. He ordered the climb through the plane’s autopilot, which isn’t completely “auto”: the pilot must manually adjust the plane’s power to maintain airspeed during the climb.

“While or just after initiating the climb, the Mishap Pilot continued working an orbit adjustment to better service tracking an active target,” the probe says. Amid the clouds — with no visual clues outside the cockpit as to speed or orientation — 25 seconds passed before the pilot realized that his plane, like The Little Engine That Could, was slowing down as it climbed.


But the aircraft pilot and mission commander–who had spent their careers flying larger aircraft–were already behind the curve:

Eventually the pilot realized what was happening. “A little slow,” he acknowledged. “Correcting.” Too slow, he knew, and the plane could lose the lift that keeps it aloft and begin dropping like a stone.

Even as Independence 08 continued its climb, it had already started down a slippery slope. “From approximately 10 seconds from climb initiation until loss of [communications] feed, the climb rate increases and the airspeed decreases at a rapid rate,” the investigation says. “The Mishap Aircraft airspeed decreased from 150 knots to 116 knots during the final seconds of controlled flight.”

Seven seconds passed before the mission commander, sitting in the right front seat, spoke up. “Alright,” he ordered the pilot, according to a snippet of chatter captured by the cockpit voice recorder detailed in the report, without emotion or punctuation. “Firewall.” That was an order to push the plane’s throttles forward — “through the firewall” — and send more power to the propellers. “Max power, max power.”

This is where Independence 08 entered a perfect aerodynamic storm:

— To avoid the clouds, it was climbing.

— It was already making a left-hand turn, as part of its prescribed orbit.

— To fly the orbit, it was already banked to the left.

— The MC-12W’s props do not spin opposite one another, but in the same direction. Boosting their power tugs the aircraft to the left.”

Seconds after calling for max power, the aircraft banked at least 50 degrees to the left, followed shortly by the stall warning horn.  The mission commander took control of the MC-12, but was unable to correct what became a fatal plunge.  Falling more than 15,000 feet–at a speed in excess of 300 mph– the aircraft struck the ground just 80 seconds after entering its planned climb. 

While the crew of Independence 08 was highly experienced, their proficiency in the MC-12 was limited, as indicated in the mishap report: 

“Both pilots were on their first MC-12W deployment and were inexperienced in their roles on the mishap sortie. Their limited recent experience was compounded by the fact that they had not flown together in the past…Inexperience would have made the Mishap Pilot less familiar with the MC-12W, affecting his visual scan and instrument crosscheck proficiency, and making him more susceptible to task saturation while tracking his first target on his first mission. This delayed detection of the pitch, the decreasing airspeed, and the imminent stall. During spin and spiral recovery, inexperience likely caused him to pull vice relax the yoke, and delayed prompt reduction of power. Finally, it was also the Mishap Mission Commander’s first flight as a newly qualified certifier who was just completing his second month of his first MC-12W deployment. This explains his delayed intervention in both preventing the stall and recovering the Mishap Aircraft. Limited weapon system experience is common with MC-12W combat operations due to the high rate of crews temporarily assigned to the platform. This is a result of known program risks.”

Note the verbiage: “known program risks.”  In other words, when you take a plane with these flight characteristics–and crew them with pilots who are essentially “passing through”–you run the risk of this type of mishap, where limited experience, coupled with a dicey situation, leads to fatal results.

It is too early to know if similar circumstances contributed to the most recent MC-12 accident in Afghanistan.  But certain “fixes” could be made, to lessen the risk of future crashes; these include:

 First, determine the long-term future of the MC-12 program.  While the USAF largely dominates the ISR mission, it was (reportedly) a reluctant participant in acquiring and operating the Liberty.  Senior officers believed the money spent on the MC-12 could be better invested in other platforms, such as Predator and Reaper UAVs. 

Indeed, there was also a perception that the MC-12 will disappear when our participation in Afghanistan ends.  So, there was little incentive to create a cadre of pilots who would fly the Liberty for most of their career; indeed, many Air Force pilots wanted no part of the MC-12, viewing a long-term assignment as a career killer, especially if they had experience in other airframes.  So, the Air Force hit on the notion of crewing the Liberty with pilots who would fly it for a short time, then return to their original aircraft.     

But the U.S. will retain some involvement in Afghanistan (and other low-intensity conflicts) through the end of this decade, so it makes sense to retain the MC-12.  So, the Air Force must decide whether to retain the Liberty, or….

Give the aircraft–and the mission–to the Army.  That service has been operating C-12 variants for decades, and they have pilots (usually warrant officers) who spend their careers in that airframe, which would ceratinly raise the experience factor.  However, getting the Air Force to surrender their MC-12s may be easier said than done; the USAF owns most of the systems that exploit information collected by the aircraft, and while the service is a reluctant operator of the “Liberty,” there are certain operational and budgetary advantages in “owning” the entire mission.   

Before last April’s crash, there were at least four other incidents in which MC-12s entered into stalls, resulting in near-catastrophic altitude loss.  Limited crew training played a factor in each of those incidents.  Now, it will be up to investigators to determine if similar factors contributed to the latest crash.