A recent transpac crippled six F-22s as they made their way from Hawaii to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. The culprit: The International Date Line.
When the fighters crossed the line, all of their computer systems went Tango Uniform – fuel subsystems, navigation, and some of the comms.
We turn to CNN’s John Roberts and retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd for expert commentary on the matter:
ROBERTS: Twenty five years from development to deployment, the F-22 Raptor is the most advanced fighting machine in the air. But it was no match for a computer glitch that left six of them high above the Pacific Ocean, deaf, dumb and blind as they headed to their first deployment. So what happened? We turn to a man who’s at home in the cockpit, Retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd. Don, let me set the scene. These F-22s, eight of them, were headed from Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii to an Air Force base in Japan. They were approaching the international date line, pick it up from there.
SHEPPERD: You got it right, John. You want everything to go right with your frontline fighter, $125, $135 million to copy. The F-22 Raptor is our frontline fighter, air defense, air superiority. It also can drop bombs. It is stealthy. It’s fast and you want it all to go right on your first deployment to the Pacific and it didn’t. At the international date line, whoops, all systems dumped and when I say all systems, I mean all systems, their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were — they could have been in real trouble. They were with their tankers. The tankers – they tried to reset their systems, couldn’t get them reset. The tankers brought them back to Hawaii. This could have been real serious. It certainly could have been real serious if the weather had been bad. It turned out OK. It was fixed in 48 hours. It was a computer glitch in the millions of lines of code, somebody made an error in a couple lines of the code and everything goes.
ROBERTS: This is almost like the feared Y2K problem that happened to these aircraft. We should point out that computers control almost every aspect of this aircraft, from their weapons systems, to the flight controls and the computers absolutely went haywire, became useless.
SHEPPERD: Absolutely. When you think of airplanes from the old days, with cables and that type of thing and direct connections between the sticks and the yolks and the controls, not that way anymore. Everything is by computer. When your computers go, your airplanes go. You have multiple systems. When they all dump at the same time, you can be in real trouble. Luckily this turned out OK.
ROBERTS: What would have happened General Shepperd if these brand-new $120 million F-22s had been going into battle?
SHEPPERD: You would have been in real trouble in the middle of combat. The good thing is that we found this out. Any time — before, you know, before we get into combat with an airplane like this. Any time you introduce a new airplane, you are going to find glitches and you are going to find things that go wrong. It happens in our civilian airliners. You just don’t hear much about it but these things absolutely happen. And luckily this time we found out about it before combat. We got it fixed with tiger teams in about 48 hours and the airplanes were flying again, completed their deployment. But this could have been real serious in combat.
ROBERTS: So basically you had these advanced air — not just superiority but air supremacy fighters that were in there, up there in the air, above the Pacific Ocean, not much more sophisticated than a little Cessna 152 only with a jet engine.
SHEPPERD: You got it. They are on a 12 to 15-hour flight from Hawaii to Okinawa, but all their systems dumped. They needed help. Had they gotten separated from their tankers or had the weather been bad, they had no attitude reference. They had no communications or navigation. They would have turned around and probably could have found the Hawaiian Islands. But if the weather had been bad on approach, there could have been real trouble. Again, you get refueling from your tankers. You don’t run — you don’t get yourself where you run out of fuel. You always have enough fuel and refueling nine, 10, 11, 12 times on a flight like this where you can get somewhere to land. But again, attitude reference and navigation are essential as is communication. In this case all of that was affected. It was a serious problem.
ROBERTS: So the fact the computers run so much of the systems on these aircraft, General Shepperd, is the — is the military at risk of over engineering here so if they did have a problem like that when they were going into a hostile situation, they could be, as you said, repeatedly in real trouble?
SHEPPERD: Well, you have redundant systems but it’s just a fact of life in the modern computer age. By the way John, you are going to have the same problem coming up on your laptop computer as we conferred from — from standard time from daylight savings time to standard time. Your program — your computer is programmed for one thing and we have changed the dates and you are going to have a problem. It’s going to have to be dealt with.
ROBERTS: Do me a favor Don. Make sure I’m not on my laptop computer when I’m flying in an F-22 on that day.
And make sure you don’t try to conduct any strikes across the International Date Line. One side or the other, war planners; one side or the other.