When Their F-18 Cockpit Froze Over, This Crew Navigated Home Using Smart Watches

A Navy EA-18G Growler experienced a terrifying mishap while in flight, resulting in the pilot having to fly blind. The aircraft’s environmental control system (ECS) failed, causing the temperature in the plane to plummet to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The ECS began releasing a fine mist, which quickly froze, covering instrument panels in opaque sheets of ice.

The incident took place approximately 60 miles from Seattle, Washington. The Growler was part of the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9) and was at a height of about 25,000 feet as it traveled from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

With their panels covered in ice, the crew contacted air traffic control for assistance. But that wasn’t the only tool at their disposal, as the Navy had issued the pilots Garmin Fenix 3 smartwatches to function as backup alert devices for issues with the oxygen generation system (OBOGS) or changes in cockpit pressure.

While the smartwatch alerts also failed, the crew was able to use the devices as navigational aids, allowing them to work their way back to base along with the support from air traffic control.

Both the Growler’s pilot and the electronic warfare officer suffered severe injuries, including frostbite, according to a report by The Drive.

According to US Navy Commander Ron Flanders, a Naval Air Forces’ spokesperson, “one of the aircrew is already back in flight status.”

“The other is not yet back in flight status, but is expected to make a complete recovery,” Flanders stated. “The mishap is under investigation.”

This is said to be the first time this specific kind of ECS failure has occurred on a Growler, though a different ECS issue has occurred and resulted in serious injuries.

In December 2016, a Growler malfunctioned, allowing the pressure in the cockpit to spike. One member of the crew suffered from collapsed lungs while another sustained a traumatic brain injury. The change in pressure ultimately led the canopy to shatter, sending shards of plexiglass flying.

At this point, the Navy is still investigating the recent incident, and have not yet definitively determined what caused the failure, though Washington state has been experiencing cold weather and the ground crew reportedly sprayed down the aircraft shortly before the mission began, which may or may not have contributed to the events that unfolded.