This newly declassified video footage from the head-up-display of a U.S. Air Force Arizona Air National Guard F-16 records the dramatic moment when an unconscious pilot is saved from certain death by the aircraft’s Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS).
The video, taken on May 5, 2016, shows the Auto-GCAS onscreen as breathing is heard from the pilot, who has presumably passed out by this time. Voices are heard calling in and the screen shows the plane dipping and heading for the ground, then suddenly lifting up and twisting in the air, eventually righting itself.
The Auto-GCAS was developed by the government and pioneered by NASA in 2014, intended to reduce the incidences of controlled flight into terrain that causes accidents leading to death. The software was created in partnership between the Office of the Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, the Air Force Test Center (AFTC) and Lockheed Martin.
The system was tested extensively at NASA Armstrong, demonstrating that it could prevent accidents caused by controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), which is a leading cause of death in both military and civil aviation. Large commercial aircraft have cockpit-warning systems, but small fighter aircraft, helicopters and general aviation had been lacking this feature.
The Auto-GCAS was also a response to the significant number of distracted, incapacitated or unconscious pilots flying into the ground when their aircrafts were perfectly functional. As the aircraft descends, the computer calculates how much time there is before impact, and triggers an autopilot command movement that avoids a crash.
The first F-16 to be ever saved by the same system was a US Air Force F-16C participating in combat operations against ISIS in Syria in 2015. Since then, the system has saved multiple lives, and is turning out to be a big advantage for pilots in the Air Force.