Saturday, August 12, 2017

Report finds Miramar training flight resulting in crash was 'not scheduled, prepared for or authorized'

On November 9th, the Marine Corps instructor pilot gazed outside his cockpit and noted nothing but clear blue skies, the sun overhead, a light wind before him and only the smoke from a large fire in Mexico skimming west over the Pacific Ocean 19,000 feet below his F/A-18C Hornet strike fighter.

His wingman was green, new to the “Black Knights” of Miramar’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314, and he hadn’t flown in a long time. Although he kept insisting over the radio that he had a visual on the instructor, the rookie really seemed to be flying blind as he began arcing left in his turn, toward the instructor.

Over the next 24 seconds, both pilots would begin to rapidly realize that their jets were hurtling toward each other at 403 miles per hour. The instructor tried to bank up and to his right, away from his wingman, but failed.

A loud noise pointed the instructor to his outer wing panel, now bent straight up. The instructor watched his right aileron break off, “followed by what appeared to be the most of the outer wing.”

Jet fuel streamed out of multiple holes and then ignited, the flames running like ivy toward his cockpit. His flight controls failed. The aircraft pitched right before corkscrewing toward the sea. Flames curled over the canopy, and then toward the plane’s nose.

He ejected about 30 miles northwest of the Mexican city of Ensenada.

And within hours of his rescue by Navy helicopters from the carrier Carl Vinson, a probe would begin to find out what went so horribly wrong.

Released to The San Diego Union-Tribune this past week following a Freedom of Information Act request, the thick investigative report appears to have been finished on Jan. 17.

It identifies neither the instructor nor his rookie wingman in the crash by name but finds plenty of fault in how they were trained and led before they took to the air for what was intended to be basic flight maneuvers.

In his letter endorsing the bulk of the findings in the report, Col. William H. Swan, commander of Miramar’s Marine Aircraft Group 11, said that the training flight was “not scheduled, prepared for or authorized appropriately” and both the squadron’s commanding officer and his instructor pilot “provided an insufficient level of supervision to mitigate the risk” they identified before the exercise.

Although initially redacted in the report, entries later identified the commanding officer as Lt. Col. D. J. Byrum.

Swan faulted him for trying to cycle so many Category I — green — pilots like the wingman through the MAG-11 Turkey Shoot 2016 training event.

Merely adding a seasoned pilot like the instructor to fly alongside a rookie failed to make up for a lack of “additional appropriate controls,” Swan wrote, and every member of the squadron who reviewed or approved the Black Knights’ flight schedule shared in the blame.

Joining the squadron only eight days before the collision, the wingman became overwhelmed by the gravity of the rapidly deteriorating situation and failed to “communicate his disorientation” and “apply correct control” to his jet. The instructor over-estimated the wingman’s situational awareness and failed to provide supervisory radio calls to ensure that they safely avoided each other, Swan wrote.

The wingman echoed Swan’s assessment, writing in his official statement that he found it hard to pick out the instructor’s jet in the sun. By the time he realized they were on a collision course, he “immediately pushed the stick full forward in a last ditch effort to miss his aircraft,” but the wings struck each other.

He had logged fewer than 10 instrument flight hours in the six months before the crash, according to the report. Due to a knee injury, he also lacked “30 day currency.”

That’s a standard measure the Marines use to determine how much of an additional margin of safety will be required to perform a particular aerial skill. The wingman had tried to overcome that by spending more time in flight simulators but planners should have tried harder to mitigate the higher risk level of putting so many green pilots in the sky.

Although the wingman’s fighter also suffered considerable damage — including a heavily damaged left wing, its stabilator partially missing — he drew praise from Swan for exceptional airmanship by safely landing his aircraft on the tarmac at Naval Air Station North Island.

In his letter endorsing the report’s findings, Maj. Gen. Mark Wise, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, faulted the instructor’s “lack of flight control during execution.” That, Wise wrote, signaled that instructor pilots should "have not only the requisite technical skills but also the specific experience and training necessary to become effective instructors,” traits he believed the flight leader lacked.

MAG-11’s Swan took aim at a chronic problem in the Marine Corps, where an aging fleet of strike fighters has eroded the time pilots can spend training in the air.

When F-18s entered the fleet, the Pentagon estimated that a Hornet would spend about 6,000 hours in the air before getting scrapped. Constant sorties providing close air support to troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan ate up many of those precious hours and the planes’ intended replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, fell years behind schedule.

Both the Navy and Marines now want to keep their “legacy” Hornets going for 10,000 hours but the more time they spend in the air the more extensive the repairs and the fewer planes can go around for pilots to practice flying.

“Given sustained low flight hours across the F/A-18 community, our aircrew have a smaller scope of experience and significantly reduced tactical proficiency,” Swan wrote. “The community will continue to operate under greater risk until both the frequency and quality of training sorties can increase. The question for us then becomes not ‘if’ we can schedule a certain sortie, rather ‘should’ we schedule that sortie.”

Although he had compiled nearly 1,378 flight hours during a nearly decade-long career, the instructor pilot averaged about 13.3 hours per month preceding the crash. The Marine Corps goal before the collision was 15.7 hours per month.

The report repeatedly praised rescue sailors from the carrier Vinson’s Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Four, who also are known as the Black Knights.

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