Navy report: 2014 Super Hornet crash was preventable

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

Several thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, a year ago today: Two Navy fighter jets banked toward each other at more than 400 mph.

The roaring F/A-18 Super Hornets converged, crossing within 1,000 feet before zooming back into formation and preparing to do it again.

The aerial sparring – intended to simulate a high-stakes combat engagement with an enemy fighter – is typical off the coast of Virginia Beach, where pilots from Oceana Naval Air Station regularly practice basic flight maneuvers.

But on this day, Jan. 15, 2014, something was about to go terribly wrong. The investigation that followed revealed shortcomings in pilot training, and it serves as a cautionary tale for novice fighter pilots still learning how to keep their bearings while twisting and turning through the sky at the speed of sound.

After their third round that morning, the two pilots from Strike Fighter Squadron 143 leveled off and prepared for one more drill.

In one of the jets, a young pilot was flying his first training mission since becoming qualified to use a special helmet that projects key flight data – such as air speed, altitude, target range – onto his visor.

The pilot, investigators learned later, hadn’t gone through a recommended computer-based course before being cleared to fly with the visor-mounted display. In fact, the investigator discovered, out of 17 squadrons based at Oceana, none reported requiring pilots to complete the course; only one squadron was even aware it existed.

Out the left side of his cockpit, the pilot could see the other jet flying on a parallel course about 2 miles away. That pilot, a more experienced aviator, called out a signal, and the two jets again turned in toward each other.

The younger pilot pushed the throttle to maximum power and angled his jet down as he entered a left-hand turn at 12,000 feet above sea level. He began the turn at more than 400 mph, well above the recommended speed for an extreme nose-down maneuver.

According to the Navy flight manual, under those conditions, “It is not uncommon to accelerate uncontrollably once committed nose low in a slick Super Hornet.”

Within 15 seconds, the jet had accelerated to more than 575 mph and was descending at a 70 degree angle. The pilot, while monitoring his visor-mounted display and doing his best to keep an eye on the other jet, had apparently lost track of his rate of descent.

Four seconds later, the jet was pushing 700 mph – nearly the speed of sound – and dropping fast. A warning tone sounded, alerting the pilot that he had fallen below 5,000 feet.

He pulled the throttle back to idle, but the jet continued to descend.

A few seconds later – at roughly 2,500 feet above sea level and still flying at well over 600 mph – the pilot pulled the ejection handle, sending the $85 million aircraft careening into the ocean and blasting the aviator up into the air.

At that speed, the ejection was especially violent, tearing off the pilot’s helmet and ripping his wet suit in several places. Those who’ve ditched aircraft at far slower speeds say it’s a miracle he didn’t lose any limbs.

His parachute opened, and he drifted into the frigid sea.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, aircraft in the water,” the senior pilot called over the radio, launching a frantic rescue effort. A Navy helicopter took off from a nearby aircraft carrier. Two others took off from Norfolk Naval Station.

Fishermen – directed via radio by the pilot overhead – sailed toward the crash site and threw a life ring and a rope, but the downed pilot was too badly injured to grab hold.

He remained in the water for nearly an hour before a Navy rescue swimmer dropped from a helicopter and hoisted him out of the ocean. By then, he was suffering from hypothermia. Both of his arms were broken. His face and head were bruised. He was slipping in and out of consciousness.

The helicopter flew him to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where he would spend days recovering. The Navy, as it does after any accident, immediately started an investigation.

The final report was direct in its opening statement: “Bottom line up front, this was a preventable mishap.”

The crash was a reminder of how a small mistake in the cockpit of a fighter jet can snowball quickly. After entering the maneuver too fast, the pilot had seconds to take corrective action. But because he failed to execute standard cross checks – and because of his inexperience using the helmet-mounted display – he lost “situational awareness,” the report said.

Oversights in training and mission prep were contributing factors, the investigator wrote. Every fighter pilot in the Navy was briefed on the findings. And moving forward, anyone flying with a helmet-mounted display must complete all available training courses.

A Navy spokesman declined to say whether the pilot returned to flying.


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