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DFIRS Makes a 4,000 Mile Journey to Recovery

At approximately 1830 hours on the evening of Jan. 29, 2005, Lt. (j.g.) Jon Vanbragt and Lt. Cmdr. Markus Gudmundsson were attempting a night recovery aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) off the coast of Atsugi, Japan during CVW-5 carrier qualifications.

The Strike Fighter Squadron 102 (VFA-102) pilot and WSO made a successful approach and snagged an “OK” three-wire. But immediately Vanbragt and Gudmundsson noticed something abnormal. The F/A-18F Super Hornet “balked” instead of smoothly decelerating. Arresting cable number three had snapped, and less than a second later the F/A-18F hurtled off the angled deck too slow to fly.

But immediately Vanbragt and Gudmundsson noticed something abnormal. The F/A-18F Super Hornet “balked” instead of smoothly decelerating. Arresting cable number three had snapped, and less than a second later the F/A-18F hurtled off the angled deck too slow to fly.

Both men instantly went for their ejection handles and rode their seats safely away from the aircraft before it hit the sea. Kitty Hawk shut down its port side engines to avoid pulling the crew under as it passed close by.

The failed arresting cable flew across the deck and wrapped around the tail section of an SH-60F Seahawk from Helicopter Anti Submarine Warfare Squadron 14 (HS-14). The helicopter’s presence saved lives as it caught the cable, but six sailors were injured (two seriously) when the tip of the wire struck them.

Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set (DFIRS)

The Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set (DFIRS) on the F/A-18F Super Hornet resides on the left upper surface of the aircraft fuselage between the vertical stabilizers in a shallow compartment covered with a skin panel (see arrow). When the canopy ejects, the panel is blown off, and the DFIRS flies free. U.S. Navy photo

Two other HS-14 Seahawks rescued the VFA-102 crew, pulling them to safety from the Pacific. The Super Hornet sank to the bottom, but one piece of its equipment managed to surface.

Fast forward to December 2010; Honolulu Lifeguard and avid surfer Sean Brislin was walking along a beach near Bellows Air Force Station on Oahu, Hawaii when he spotted a strange, sand-covered orange box.

“I was checking the beach for hazards when I saw it,” Brislin remembers.

On the box was a label, printed in four languages, indicating that the object belonged to the U.S. Navy. A phone number was listed, along with the direction that it be called “for instructions.” Following the phone number, the word “REWARD” appeared in the respective languages.

On the box was a label, printed in four languages, indicating that the object belonged to the U.S. Navy. A phone number was listed, along with the direction that it be called “for instructions.” Following the phone number, the word “REWARD” appeared in the respective languages.

Brislin guessed that the box was a piece of equipment lost during RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises (the world’s largest multi-national maritime exercise) held biennially off Hawaii.

The lifeguard dutifully followed the instructions on the box and phoned the listed number. The call was answered 5,000 miles away in Norfolk, Va., by Dave Clark, an aircraft mishap investigator with the Naval Safety Center.

Sean Brislin

Surfer Sean Brislin, a lifeguard for the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii, found the orange Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set (DFIRS) last December on a beach near Bellows Air Force Station on Oahu. The flight data recorder came from an F/A-18F Super Hornet lost at sea nearly six years earlier and had floated more than four thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy photo

“He described what he had, and I told him to hold onto it,” Clark says.

Brislin had found the Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set (DFIRS) from F/A-18F bureau number 165895, the VFA-102 Super Hornet Vanbragt and Gudmundsson had ejected from nearly six years earlier and over 4,000 miles away.

DFIRS are found only on Navy and Marine Corps fighters, including the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and newer production models of the F/A-18 C/D. Located in a shallow compartment on the left upper surface of the aircraft fuselage between the vertical stabilizers, the DFIRS is blown free when triggered automatically by an impact sensor or through release of the ejection seat. Activation by either of these means initiates the deployment mechanism that releases the DFIRS into the aircraft slipstream where it “flies” away from the aircraft.

Once clear, the DFIRS gains a modest gliding ability as the box’s sides flare outward to form a tapered, lifting-body shape, reducing the impact of landing. A beacon emits a continual pulsing signal to guide search crews to the box for recovery.

Once clear, the DFIRS gains a modest gliding ability as the box’s sides flare outward to form a tapered, lifting-body shape, reducing the impact of landing. A beacon emits a continual pulsing signal to guide search crews to the box for recovery.

Brislin was instructed to ship the orange DFIRS to Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) flight data download facility, the Common Flight Information Recorder Lab (CFIRAL) at NAS Patuxent River, Md.

Brenna Mitchell, the lead systems engineer for PMA-209 Fleet Avionics Sustainment and Support Team (FASST) oversees the CFIRAL. She noted that despite floating for nearly six years exposed to the elements, the recorder suffered little damage.

Bill Boyden

FASST electronics engineer Bill Boyden connects the memory module to a computer to download the data. The sealed memory module of the Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set (DFIRS) found last December on a beach near Bellows Air Force Station on Oahu, Hawaii, worked perfectly and was able to download its data. The flight data recorder came from an F/A-18F Super Hornet lost at sea nearly six years earlier and had floated more than four thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. NAVAIR photo

A small amount of corrosion was found in areas where water had leaked underneath the lid, but the sealed memory module was intact.

“When we went to download the data, it worked perfectly,” Mitchell reports.

Data downloaded from the DFIRS didn’t affect the accident investigation, according to NAVAIR, as the mishap was due to the failure of the arresting cable, not the aircraft.

The Navy says the DFIRS from the VFA-102 Super Hornet was the first ever returned to the service by the public. Consequently, there was no procedure in place to make good on the “reward” mentioned on the box’s label.

The Navy says the DFIRS from the VFA-102 Super Hornet was the first ever returned to the service by the public. Consequently, there was no procedure in place to make good on the “reward” mentioned on the box’s label.

NAVAIR spokesman Rob Koon explains, “In aircraft mishaps, the controlling custodian – in this case the commander, Naval Air Forces Pacific – pays for mishap investigation/reclamation of related items: trucks, cranes, billeting, etc. The reward was determined to be one of those items. An actual policy has not been established by the Navy at this time.”

“Sean was very helpful, very cooperative,” says Dave Clark. “He definitely deserves something.”

According to Koon, the Oahu surfer now has his reward. Sean Brislin apparently enjoyed the experience.

“I didn’t expect to find out what had happened, but when I did, I thought it was really cool.”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...