E-11A Pilots Died Flying An Aircraft From A Fleet So Small None Are In The U.S. For Training

All of the individuals who fly these highly specialized planes, all of which are forward-deployed in Afghanistan, volunteer for the job.

The wreckage of the U.S. Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Control Node aircraft that crashed in Afghanistan on Jan. 27, 2020.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon has identified the two pilots who died in the crash of a U.S. Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, aircraft in Afghanistan earlier this week. The announcement highlights the fact that all individuals who fly these highly specialized communications aircraft volunteer for this job and that there are so few of these planes that they're all forward-deployed in Afghanistan. This means that aviators have no chance to train directly on an E-11A in the United States before they head to Kandahar Airfield to begin flying actual operational sorties.

It's important to stress that there is no indication that this Air Force practice of soliciting volunteers who may have limited immediate experience on the E-11A or similar aircraft types in any way contributed to the mishap in Afghanistan on Jan. 27. Much of the circumstances about that crash and its immediate aftermath remain unclear.

On Jan. 29, 2020, the U.S. military officially announced that Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Paul Voss and Captain Ryan Phaneuf had died in the mishap. The E-11A, with the serial number 11-9358, had crashed in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province on Jan. 27. Voss and Phaneuf were the only two individuals on board the aircraft when it went down, despite initial reports that there might have been as many as five people on board. The Pentagon has also denied claims since then that the Taliban shot the aircraft down and says the investigation into the incident is still ongoing. There is also no evidence to support the militant group's assertion that a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer had been on the plane. 

The E-11A that crashed, along with the three remaining aircraft of this type that the Air Force operates, are all assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron at Kandahar Airfield. However, the Pentagon's statement said that Lieutenant Colonel Voss was assigned to Headquarters, Air Combat Command, situated at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia and that Captain Phaneuf was a member of the 37th Bomb Squadron based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. 

Headquarters, Air Combat Command is not a flying unit and 37th Bomb Squadron, part of the 28th Bomb Wing, flies B-1 Bone bombers, making it somewhat curious that members of both organizations would be in Afghanistan flying the E-11A, which are derived from the Bombardier BD-700 business jet. Stars & Stripes reporter Chad Garland helped explain the situation on Twitter.

"Worth noting that the Air Force has said the pilots who fly the E-11A mission all volunteered," he wrote in a Tweet after the Pentagon identified Voss and Phaneuf as those who had tragically perished in the crash. "They fly combat missions beginning from their first sortie in the unique modified Bombardier Aviation jet, which they don’t even get to fly until they reach Kandahar, per the USAF."

Pilots bound for the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron do get a month's worth of training in a simulator before they go to Afghanistan. They then get a week of "in-theater indoctrination training" on the E-11A once they arrive.

All of this only further underscores how the fleet of E-11As, just three aircraft now, is the perfect definition of a high-value, but very-low-density asset. Beyond these manned jets, the only other platforms that carry the Battlefield Airborne Control Node (BACN) payload are three EQ-4B Global Hawk drones.

BACN is a very specialized aerial communications suite that allows the E-11As and EQ-4Bs to quickly send and receive information across various waveforms and between a wide variety of other aerial platforms and forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, the E-11As also just provide an extremely valuable communications relay capability in a country where the mountainous terrain can often limit the range of line-of-sight communications systems and data links. 

Helping to coordinate airstrikes is a big part of what the E-11As do in Afghanistan and that keeps them extremely busy, with what was then a four aircraft fleet supporting approximately 7,000 strikes in 2016 alone, according to figures the Air Force previously provided to The War Zone. The type flew its 10,000 sortie on Feb. 14, 2017. You can read much more about these manned and unmanned aircraft and their obscure, but vital missions in this highly in-depth War Zone feature.

Newsweek reported that the plane was flying at a cruising altitude of 42,000 feet when the pilots issued a mayday call. Ghazni provincial government spokesman Arif Noori posited that the plane appeared to be flying north from the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron's main base of operations in Kandahar to Afghanistan's capital Kabul, according to CBS News.

Pictures from the crash site in the Dih Yak district of Ghazni province showed that the plane had skidded along the ground for a considerable distance before coming to a rest, indicating that the crew might have attempted to make an emergency landing. It's not clear if the aircraft was on fire before or after hitting the ground.

Dih Yak is under the control of the Taliban, who claimed initially to have secured the crash site and reportedly fought off initial attempts by local Afghan forces to reach the aircraft. The U.S. military reportedly subsequently dispatched a special operations force made up of elements from the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, including members of Seal Team Six, according to Newsweek. That force faced no resistance in getting to the crash site and successfully recovered Voss and Phaneuf's bodies.

"The force also recovered what is assessed to be the aircraft flight data recorder," U.S. Army Colonel Sonny Leggett, the top spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), added in a statement on Jan. 28. "The remains were found near the crash site, treated with dignity and respect by the local Afghan community, in accordance with their culture."

"U.S. forces destroyed the remnants of the aircraft," Leggett added. Newsweek had reported that the special operators on the ground had destroyed what was left of the plane before departing the site, but that U.S. officials were considering using airstrikes, as well, to ensure that neither the Taliban nor anyone else could attempt to recover sensitive equipment or documents from the wreckage. It's unclear if those strikes ultimately occurred.

Hopefully, the analysis of the apparent flight data recorder will shed more light on this accident. In the meantime, volunteers from around the Air Force will continue flying the remaining E-11As in Afghanistan as they continue to provide vital communications support for U.S. forces in that country.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com