As some of you know, I have an abiding interest in aviation, especially military, based on my background as a jet fighter pilot. I am particularly interested in reports of aircraft accidents, partly as the result of my experience as an Air Force Squadron Flying Safety Officer on active duty. It has been my frustrating experience that media reports and even NTSB investigations of aircraft accidents suffer from error and inaccuracy. Such is the case concerning media reports and some military comments of the recent crash of a Navy F/A-18D jet fighter shortly after takeoff from NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, VA.
The McDonnel-Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18C/D Hornet (The F/A stands for Fighter-Attack, the "C" model is single-seat, the "D" dual.) (See Photo) is the predecessor, dating from 1989, of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet ("E"-single, "F"-dual), an enhanced version that has become the Navy's premier and just about only carrier-based fighter aircraft. It is the aircraft flown by the Blue Angels, the Navy's aerial demonstration team.
The "D" is powered by two F404-GE-402 turbofan engines of approximately 18,000 pounds thrust each. It is capable of speeds of 1.8 Mach (1.8 x speed of sound) and weighs between 23,000 pounds empty and 51,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight. The aircraft that crashed probably had a full fuel load having just taken off and weighed about 37,000 pounds. The full fuel load is approximately 20,000 pounds. I don't know the exact fuel load of the aircraft that crashed but it probably was around this value. That's about 1900 gallons of highly volatile jet fuel.
The aircraft was only minutes from takeoff when it apparently experienced catastrophic engine failure. This is very unusual in a twin-engine aircraft and may have been the result of foreign object ingestion. The pilots stayed with the aircraft and jettisoned almost the entire fuel load (this capability is a normal feature of many aircraft, military and civilian and is specifically for the purpose of minimizing fire danger in the event of a crash or dangerous landing) before ejecting just before impact. Both were injured due in part to the action of the rocket-propelled ejection seats operative during low-altitude ejections. Dumping 2000 gallons of jet fuel takes time, since the dump is not normally pump-fed. A photograph of the crash site suggests they also steered their crippled craft to a relatively open area before ejecting.
The aircraft crashed in a populated area, an apartment project, which could have resulted in major loss of life in the event of a fire which would have been intense if fueled by nearly 2000 gallons of jet fuel. (Remember the World Trade Center attack?) However, there was little fire, no loss of life and only a few relatevely minor injuries. This has been labeled a "miracle". I maintain this was an heroic action on the part of these two pilots and believe that the "miracle" was the direct result of the crew's heroism. They stayed with their doomed aircraft until the fuel was all or nearly all gone, ejecting at very low altitude.
All high performance military airceraft are equipped with "zero altitude" ejection systems consisting of a seat propelled typically by two rockets and vectored automatically to the vertical in the event of an unusual-attitude ejection. These seats are little rocket-propelled guided missiles based on the venerable British Martin-Baker ejection seat and have saved many pilots' lives. Having said this, very low altitude ejections are always dangerous. The seat is not perfect and has been known to malfunction. Also, had they been a few seconds later, they would likely have been killed in the impact with the ground.
The media and Navy commentators who should know better have generally failed to give due credit to these two fine Navy pilots. There has even been in the media a thinly-veiled suggestion that the presence of a "a student pilot" may have been a factor in the accident. This was most likely a transition training flight where a fully-qualified pilot was being familiarized with a new aircraft by an instructor pilot. This "student" no-doubt had hundreds of hours of flight time and was a fully-qualified military aviator.
These pilots were fully responsible for the fact that there was no loss of life and only a few relatively minor injuries resulting from the crash of a large, powerful military jet aircraft in a populated area. This was due solely to the lack of significant fire, a direct result of these pilots' heroic action to stay with the aircraft to jettison the fuel. They deserve medals.