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Watch This F-16’s Autopilot Save an Unconscious Pilot’s Life

Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System successfully avoids ground.

by Ben Sullivan
Sep 13 2016, 12:15pm

The US Air Force (USAF) has declassified video footage of the moment an F-16 aircraft's Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) saved a pilot's life.

The head-up-display video, spotted by Aviation Week, shows how the Auto-GCAS system kicked in on an Arizona Air National Guard F-16 as it plummeted from 17,000ft to 5,000ft in less than 20 seconds.

The pilot, rendered unconscious after pulling out of a high-G turn during the training flight, was unable to control the aircraft or respond to his instructor's radio messages as the plane rolled left into a 50-degree dive, hitting over 600 Knots. G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) is a particular concern for fighter pilots who perform strenuous manoeuvres. Aviation Week said the pilot blacked out after pulling out of an 8.3G turn (the force of standard gravity is 1G).

At around 8,000ft the Auto-GCAS—which continuously compares an aircraft's predicted trajectory with onboard data about the terrain— recognized the dire situation the student pilot was in and engaged the aircraft into a manoeuvre that pulled the pilot out of danger.

Aviation Week said that this event is the fourth confirmed incident of the Auto-GCAS system saving a pilot's life since its introduction in late 2014.

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In a press statement issued earlier this month by the USAF, the student pilot said, "I started to roll and started to pull and I'm following [the instructor pilot] with my eyes. The next thing I remember is just waking up and hearing 'recover.' It happened so fast. Usually, [when experienced at pulling Gs], most people get tunnel vision that gradually comes in. That's what I always get, but that day I didn't get anything."

Major Luke O'Sullivan, the student's instructor who can be heard on the video footage, said, "It's definitely a valuable system. It does what it's supposed to and it works."

Auto-GCAS, just one part of a set of platforms called Ground Collision Avoidance Technology (GCAT), has been been jointly developed by NASA, the USAF and Lockheed Martin for almost three decades. After extensive and evidently successful testing in F-16s, there are plans to implement the systems into F-22, F-35, and F-18 aircraft.

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