The Navy released the official findings about what caused an F/A-18 Hornet to crash into an apartment complex shortly after takeoff from NAS Oceana in April. And in rolling out the results, they “buried the lead,” as we say in the news business.
“We have never had a dual, unrelated engine failure in the F/A-18 Hornet,” said Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, calling the event “extraordinarily unusual.”
“We don’t have a smoking gun, a definitive source of the malfunction.”
As reported in the Virginian-Pilot after 25 seconds of flight, having reached an altitude of 452 feet, the plane started its descent. Pressure on the stick and a favorable gust of wind slowed its fall for a few seconds but, after 50 seconds of flight, the plane was at an altitude of 270 feet and dropping. When it was about 100 feet above the ground, the plane began rolling and yawing, and the pilot was no longer able to control its movement. At 50 feet above the ground, the crew ejected.
Adm. Branch briefed that mishap investigators ruled that the right engine failed at takeoff due to a fuel leak. The crew felt some thumps and the weapons system officer in the backseat (an instructor) told the pilot (a student) to keep the gear down because he thought they’d blown a tire. He also told the pilot to push the left engine throttle to full afterburner, but when the pilot complied the afterburner didn’t light.
Branch said that the afterburner probably failed because of a problem with its fuel system, but that it’s impossible to know the exact reason because so much of the jet was destroyed.
“While I recognize that these gaps are less than satisfying, we have very high confidence in the F/A-18 airframe, and in the F404 engine in the legacy Hornet,” Branch said. The Navy has been flying the Hornet for over 30 years, he said, “and we have found it to be an extremely safe and reliable aircraft.”
But the empirical truth is the crew misdiagnosed the cause of the malfunction in that no tires had blown. Had the pilot raised the gear and jettisoned the drop tank (and let’s assume that would happen inside the field boundary to avoid hurting people or damaging property) he could have kept the airplane airborne with the left engine at military power.
The report said the original malfunction gave the crew about 10 seconds to diagnose the problem and react. Choose correctly and fly away. Choose incorrectly and turn an apartment complex into a fiery mass.
As Charlie said to Maverick in the greatest movie ever made, “You made the wrong choice.”
The good news is the crew survived with minor injuries and — a bigger miracle — nobody on the ground was hurt.
Both the pilot and WSO were cleared of any wrongdoing. Their judgement was ruled reasonable considering all the circumstances they faced and evidence they were dealing with at the time.
So if you think this aviating stuff is easy in the era of high-tech, think again.