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Lifesaving Technology Earns Award for Air Force Research Lab Team

June 26, 2019 | BY David Vergun
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The Air Force Research Laboratory's Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System team won the 2018 Robert J. Collier Trophy, an award bestowed annually by the National Aeronautic Association that recognizes "the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency and safety of air or space vehicles."

Group poses for photo
Winner' Smile
Representatives from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System team accept the 2018 Robert J. Collier Trophy in Washington, D.C., June 13, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Research Laboratory
VIRIN: 190613-O-ZZ999-001

The NAA selected the Auto-GCAS team for "successfully completing a rapid design, integration and flight test of critical, lifesaving technology for the worldwide F-35 fleet," according to the award citation.

AFRL's Aerospace Systems Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, led the development of Auto-GCAS, while members of the F-35 Integrated Task Force at Edwards Air Force Base, California, led the flight-test program.

People maintain jets
Working Together
U.S. and Norwegian airmen work together to maintain two U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters at Orland Air Base, Norway, June 17, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. Austin M. May
VIRIN: 190617-F-UA873-0132C

Kevin Price, AFRL program manager and retired Air Force F-16 pilot, said the team is honored and especially grateful for the resulting public awareness, adding that the greatest reward comes from the knowledge that pilots have come home from missions safely due to the development and transition of Auto-GCAS.

"We are most proud of the precious lives and combat resources [that] have been preserved through this revolutionary, life-saving technology," he said.

Auto-GCAS relies on GPS and a digital terrain database. The system employs complex algorithms and scans the digital terrain around an aircraft's current and projected area to initiate an automatic recovery at the last instant to avoid a ground collision when needed.

Auto-GCAS saves pilots' lives by preventing the most common reason for crashes: controlled flight into terrain. According to Air Force statistics, CFIT is responsible for 75% of all F-16 crashes. The leading causes of CFIT are spatial disorientation, target fixation and G-force induced loss of consciousness.

Jet moves down runway
F-15C Eagle
An F-15C Eagle fighter jet taxis while an F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter takes off before Exercise Tri-Lightning in Southwest Asia, June 25, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury
VIRIN: 190625-F-XK483-1149C

Since being fielded on F-16 Block 40/50 aircraft in 2014, Auto-GCAS has saved seven aircraft and the lives of eight Air Force pilots, said Mark Wilkins, a senior Defense Department aviation safety analyst. Today, more than 600 F-16 Block 40/50 aircraft have the capability. Development efforts are in the works to field the system on an additional 330 pre-Block 40 aircraft in 2021.

In April, the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base recommended that Auto-GCAS be fielded on the F-35 following a series of flight tests. Pentagon officials estimate that this technology will save 40 pilots as well as 57 F-16s and F-35s through 2040.

Besides the AFRL, the winning team included Lockheed-Martin, the F-35 Joint Program Office, NASA, the Defense Safety Oversight Council and other Air Force entities.