Mishap Hornet Crew Guessed Wrong

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.


51 Comments on "Mishap Hornet Crew Guessed Wrong"

  1. Are the possible Chinese parts haunting us already?

  2. Despite the proof it's still the pilot's fault…

  3. Shit happens. Thankfully no one was hurt.

  4. Hindsight is 20/20

  5. Ten seconds is not very much time to diagnose a problem at 200' AGL. That aside, the Air Force probably would have blamed the aircrew for messing up the plane.

  6. This is another reason why Navy pilots love having 2 engines on board an aircraft instead of 1. The reliability fact is drastically improved. This is the first dual engine failure on a Hornet after many many years of operation. When you're over water, unlike the USAF, that second engine really counts.

  7. A fuel leak? I have a hard time understanding that. Obviously I'm not an investigator there, but I think it's more plausible that the engines suffered a unrecovereable surge, specially right after takeoff. Does the F18 have FADECS to figure out what state the engines were at?

  8. From the article, this comment was made:
    As Charlie said to Maverick in the greatest movie ever made, “You made the wrong choice.”
    CORRECTION: Charlie did not say that to Maverick, Viper did.
    Did anyone ever watch that movie???? Inexcusable.

  9. How about some sensors in the tires?

  10. "But the empirical truth is the crew misdiagnosed the cause of the malfunction in that no tires had blown. "

    How did they determine the tire had not blown. I thought I read in the incident report that no evidence could be found because everything was destroyed in the crash. Did some new evidence or witness come available?

    Read more: http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/2012/07/04/mishap-hornet-c

  11. Still Shit happens.

  12. Well said Dale. Those of us in the business know better. I'm sure they got all the data from the CSFIRS/DFIRS recorder and made the correct determination. As a side note… Top Gun was a joke

  13. Having worked on F-14's,I can say without a doubt that aircraft always have some kind of fuel leak,sometimes bad enough not to let he a/c fly,I've seen with small leaks that no matter what you do you what to rip your hair out.Sound more like they had a failure of a valve in the fuel system.

  14. Explain this to me: the F/A-18 has two engines, but it can go toe-to-toe in a knife fight with any single engine aircraft of comparable generation. It can still outrun and outmaneuver the F-35 and it is one of the least maintenance intensive fighter jets in the world. Aside from that a bird strike would take out only one engine, not both. There have been instances when dual engine aircraft have taken damage and were forced to rely on the other to make it home. There have still been incidents of engines flaming out or failing and the second saving the jet and the pilot from an ejection. I don't think it's a matter of weight and complexity so much as it is design.

  15. '
    […]He also told the pilot to push the left engine throttle to full afterburner, but when the pilot complied the afterburner didn’t light.
    […]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.

    Not sure how the latter would work out, if they discovered that the afterburner didn't light (the former)? Perhaps I missed something.

  16. ” The Navy released the official findings…”

    Nope, the two official USN investigation boards are still ongoing (as stated during this briefing).

    This USN briefing was basically an interim report and public affairs update on the mishap.

    Not much detail in this brief briefing.

    No mention of what cockpit indications the aircrew saw — fire-lights, engine-gauges, smoke & fumes, etc.

    Were birdstrikes ruled out ? Why ?

    A fuel-leak is prominently specified as causing the first engine failure — how’d they figure that out while saying the crash/fire destroyed most everything ?

    The junior officer/pilot had very little time to analyze that critical situation, but sounds like the aircraft got behind-the-power-curve… with the remaining engine still producing enough thrust to stay airborne.

    Suspect the real final-report will read rather differently.


  17. Has anyone looked at bird ingestion. I seem to remember an Air Bus that ended up in the Hudson for that reason. All the same the pilots got to go home and the home owners get new homes to go to. The good thing no lives were lost…

  18. On the F/A-18, the landing gear will not go up with the right engine secured. The right engine powers the Hyd 2 system which raises and lowers the gear. There is a way to emergency lower the gear, but no way to bring it up. Even if the crew wanted to raise the gear, they would not have been able to.

  19. Did accident investigations on F-4's "in the day" and had a dual engine failure once. Was a fuel system failure, …. "feed tank" (low level float valve) was empty without indication, McDonnell built the F-4, … and original F-18's; maybe a "feed tank" failure?? (if the F-18 has one, .??.). dk.

  20. dubweiser101 | July 6, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply

    This is what happens when you drink and fly.

  21. Just curious: Why is no one questioning whether bio/green fuel was possibly the cause? With the statement "never had dual engine failure before" and the push for military 'green' fuels, it seems a possible cause that is glaringly lacking from any analysis, particularly in official reports.

  22. Luke Atmadik | July 9, 2012 at 12:31 am | Reply

    2 pilots screwed the pooch here. The rest is politics….

  23. D Flomerfelt | July 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply

    Why are no questions as to how a large apartment complex was allowed to be built so close to a NAS. Here on Whidbey Is. the county has done everything possible to prevent high density housing in flight path zones.

  24. I remember a dual eng flame out on a E2C back in the 70's caused by dirty Fuel nozzles was corrected in less than 5 months

  25. Discussions about probable cause and it is interesting hearing the comments from the different levels of experience. One thing I learned in 30 years of naval aviation maintenance concerning mishap boards is to just keep your mouth shut and comply with the requests from the board. Seems the most speculating comes from those that understand the least. Trust the process, it works, this is how improvements in naval aviation are made. One primary function of the board is to determine cause so that it can be used as a learning tool to prevent future mishaps.

  26. I am a former Navy F4 Driver. Let's not forget that the folks on the ground reported hearing three quick explosions in a row. That would be back seat leaving the aircraft, front leaving the aircraft, and plane hitting the ground. Even though they may not have reacted perfectly , they had the balls to stay with it……….. and try to get it to the water.

  27. Mike McQuiston | July 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply

    This wouldn't have been nearly as big a deal if the best master jet base on the east coast wasn't shut down nearly 20 years ago and Oceana, surrounded by out of control development and political influence, remained open. I'm surprised there haven't been more accidents there. The BRAC process is a joke, and this accident proves it.

  28. The most dangerous part of a flight , is the takeoff . But…. with both engines at max power, and on engine failed, it should have still climbed and given them time to figure out the problem. I think both engines failed or more probably one engine was not putting out full power . KW

  29. 10 seconds, I wish all you arm chair pilots and accident investigator to take 10 seconds and see if you can do anything as critical as what they were face with. I bet it takes you more than 10 seconds to wipe your _ _ _. These two brave airmen did the best they could with the time that they had to do it in. Brovo Zulu the these two guys and I am thankful that they are ok and no one got hurt or killed on the ground.

  30. As a Naval Aviation Safety Officer (retired) I can assure you a thorough investigation was done. In the safety process, the Navy goes thru extreme means to get to the bottom of the mishap. All involved are immune fm legal action (although there can be a separate JAG invest.) & the truth is paramount for future safety. Its fun to conjecture but most of us don't know squat

    What an idiotic statement about the pilot guessing wrong. Obviously the writer doen't have a clue what it's like to be in a Navy cockpit. Bogs.

  31. This article is an utter disgrace. The author (who wrote anonymously, for obvious reasons) claims "Had the pilot raised the gear and jettisoned the drop tank . . . he could have kept the airplane airborne with the left engine at military power." Where exactly did he get this info? This was a heavy FA-18D (likely with 4 pylons) — there is no guarantee that it would climbed away at MIL even if with the gear up and no tank. And even if that is true, it takes some cajones to publicly second guess two guys that are facing a life and death situation. As if that wasn't bad enough, he went on to make a bigger ass of himself by misquoting the movie — very professional.

    Nice work, man. Leave the armchair quarterbacking to the people that know something about flying strike fighters.

  32. obviously the people on here being critical of the author and the raising of the gear and pickling of the drop tank have not read the official report, like the author has.

  33. As a Maintenance Control Chief, I can state emphatically: If you continuously put aircraft in the air, the odd are that sooner or later one will fall out of the sky. Every effort humanly possible goes into NOT having one fall out of the sky. There are checks, checks and rechecks taken to ensure a safe mission for the aircrew. Given the parameters that the aircrew was working in, they deserve a "SH" for their actions.

  34. http://hamptonroads.com/2012/07/navy-jet-crash-ca

    This is the article that includes the leaked official MISREP. It does include a statement that it would have been physically possible to keep the jet flying had they jettisoned the tank and cleaned up. That is surprising given that the left motor was was only operating at 83% of normal MIL thrust, but I'll give the author that one. Nonetheless, the MISREP does NOT use the words "wrong" or "incorrect" anywhere when discussing the aircrew's actions — those are the author's judgments. Since there is no byline, we don't know who the author is; I'm assuming he doesn't wear a pair of wings, however. So he should probably leave the judgments to the mishap board, skip the movie quotes, and just report the news.

  35. Who was in command of the aircraft, the pilot or the NFO?

  36. F18SystemsFacts | July 12, 2012 at 6:51 am | Reply

    Since no reporter added their name to this, I can't send this directly. Since you felt the need to comment on the decisions of 2 aircrew inexplicably falling out of the sky, I thought it only fair you actually do some research on the systems of the Hornet. You imply that a "correct decision" would have resulted in the aircraft flying away and make a cute reference to Top Gun. In your exhaustive research of this article did you come across the fact, that had the crew correctly diagnosed the problem, it's likely nothing would have changed? A catastrophic right engine failure, as described here, would have resulted in a loss of hydraulic pressure from the system associated with that engine. Gear retraction and extension are driven off the hyd system that is powered by the right engine. With this scenario, it is most likely the gear would not have come up at all, and the result would have been the same. The only chance at bringing the landing gear up was enough residual pressure in the accumulators to open and close all the doors and raise the gear. It's rather annoying that you report this information incorrectly as "fact" without doing your due process.

  37. One second, it was a dual engine failure, but if they would have dumped the drop tank and went wheels up, they could have kept in the air with military power? Really? Is there a third engine somewhere I don't know about? I missed something.

  38. Did anybody THANK the ALSS branch? Everybody else has a back up system;
    PR's the LAST to let you down!!!!

  39. Reopen NAS Cecil Field.

  40. just so you know, the right motor is the one that drives the hydraulic pump that is used to raise and lower the gear. If they didn't have the right engine, they couldn't raise the gear. Second guessing them after everyone has had months to think about it isn't fair to them. As it is, they waited WAY too long to eject (50 feet?!) trying to save the plane and put it somewhere else. I would love to know who wrote this story.

  41. John Valarinos | July 12, 2012 at 8:35 am | Reply

    There was an incident in Canada with exactly the same engine configuration after the crash. The afterburner nozzle of one engine was wide open and the other was fully closed. A trend ?? If the pilot suspected only a blown tire, both engines would have been at Military with both afterburner nozzles fully closed. As for the crash zone, that was an issue during the BRAC closures several years ago. More incompetence in government….. Oceana was kept open and Cecil Field was closed. Cecil had a good crash zone, room to grow and was an alternate for the Space Shuttle. Politics ?? Ya THINK ???

  42. Grandpa Dickie | July 12, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply

    I got a few thousand hours with Navy pilots. They're the greatest as I'm still alive at 77 in spite of some hairy flights, always mechanical problems, as it's not like you can pull off the road and look under the hood. Any time you come out of a flight alive, it's a good flight.

  43. Hey folks, stop and count to ten. Just enough time to pull the eject handles and yell "Oh, poop!" And at 50 ft above ground level? I am go glad they were not injured seriously. They'll live to fly again, I hope. Write this one off as TS.

  44. I thought there was an idiot light and warning alarm to tell you of engine failure

  45. I don't like his article, but just to set the record straight, the reporter was paraphrasing the Navy's MISREP when he mentioned retracting the gear and keeping it airborne. The implication was that the crew could have sucked up the gear while the right motor was still spooling down and HYD 2 still had some pressure. The investigating officer, while stating that it was physically possible, didn't think that even more-experienced aircrew would have necessarily correctly diagnosed the problem and taken those actions in the short time they had. So despite the author's tone here –which I don't like–we can't hit him on systems knowledge: it's right out of the MISREP.

  46. If you think there is enough time to raise the gear and deside to drop tanks inside the base at Oceana, you have never seen the base. Should have keot Cecil Field florida. no coladeral damage there.

  47. Skip Royeton | July 14, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply

    I spent 20 years in the Navy as a photographer and sustems tech. I did a lot of flying, sometimes hanging out of the door of a helo taking pictures and a lot of times photographing aircraft accidents. Every time I came away respecting the pilots and the skil they showed. I've read all of the posts on this article and have come to a few conclusions. A large number of the zero's that wrote have a poor grasp of the English language and they obviously don't know that the aircraft are propelled by ENGINES not motors. Several of them do not have enough intelligence to proof read what they have written(?). As usual, when a bunch of pilots get together all they can do back bite. They are as bad as their wives at their get togethers. After following around a lot of senior officers, I much prefer Admirals. They aren't kissing up to some one.

  48. Skip Royeton | July 14, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply

    I messed up. I spelled systems wrong. OK my face is red. I re-proof read it & am satisfied.

  49. Skip, you misspelled proofread. It's one word. And you don't need an apostrophe in zero's. It's plural, not possessive. It's somewhat ironic given your critique of the other posters' grasp of English. By the way, aircrew refer to engines as motors quite often, just like we may refer to an aircraft carrier as a boat. It's slang. Similar to the slang you use on your Facebook page — calling Latinos wetbacks, for example. You seem just fine with that BS racist slang. Lastly, backbiting about other people backbiting? The irony never ends with you.

  50. Lets look at one fact that is glaringly evident. They flat out stated that the aircraft CANNOT maintain airspeed while flying dirty. The biggest complaint when the F-18 was first brought into inventory was the lack of power provided by the legacy F404 engines. Ever watch an F/A-18 that is fully loaded launch from the flight deck…need full after burner to get in the air. An F-14 could get off the deck with a full load using only full throttle. The F/A-18 C/D needs to be retired or re-engined…Period. Thankfully the F/A-18 E/F has the power that the legacy Hornets are lacking.

  51. A Career Pilot myself and having flown military aircraft, I do not condem these pilots whatsoever. the short time they had to fly, deduce a problem, and make a decision takes the bulk of that 10 seconds! They did all they could with what they had.

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