Marine jet crash into San Diego house attributed to string of errors

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

An internal investigation by the United States Marine Corps into the crash of an F/A-18 jet into a San Diego house has blamed errors on the part of the pilot, his superiors and maintenance personnel for the accident which killed four people.

The report found that mechanics had noticed the aircraft had a faulty fuel transfer system in June 2008 but repairs were never made, with the defective jet performing 146 more sorties in this state before the December accident.

"While we did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the responsible parties are being held accountable for their part in this tragic accident," said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Four Marine squadron officers have been relieved of duty, as well as Navy officers. Eight enlisted Marines and one Navy sailor have been reprimanded. The pilot has been grounded.

On the day of the accident the pilot, Lt. Dan Neubauer, had just taken off from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln when he reported that the aircraft's right engine had low oil pressure.

A similar F/A-18 Hornet with the US Marines

Neubauer, who was still in training, shut the engine down as a precaution, leaving the plane operating on the left engine. The Abraham Lincoln's captain and the 'air boss' suggested an emergency landing at the North Island military base, which was about 100 miles from the carrier. This would have given an approach from over the ocean.

Neubauer contacted his squadron bosses and instead opted to try to land at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which was 11 more miles away and involved a flight path over San Diego. Neubauer also failed to read his own emergency checklists, instead having sections read to him by his squadron representatives on the ground. The squadron representatives at Miramar were unaware of all the details of the situation on board and did not read out all the relevant sections.

Officers at Miramar were informed of the fact that a warning light indicated the remaining engine was running low on fuel. However, they did not take heed in what was described by the report as a "critical mistake". In fact, the plane's tanks had plenty of fuel, but the engine trouble was caused by the faulty fuel flow system, which fed the left engine. Officers also failed to watch the plane's location properly.

Upon final approach to Miramar, Neubauer thought, incorrectly, that he could not turn right, towards his inoperative engine. Instead, he conducted a long leftwards loop to line up. The maneuver took around ninety seconds to complete and starved the left engine of fuel, causing it to flameout. At this point the jet fell towards the ground and the pilot attempted to aim the aircraft for a canyon, where it could crash safely. However, the plane did not stay airborne and struck a house at an estimated 150 mph. It is thought that two more seconds would have been enough for the plane to reach the canyon.

Cquote1.svg While we did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the responsible parties are being held accountable for their part in this tragic accident. Cquote2.svg

—Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, USMC

Instead, the crash killed four people inside the house; a grandmother, her daughter and her two granddaughters. The children's father, Dong Yun Yoon, was among those briefed on the publication of the report, alongside politicians in Washington and San Diego. The pilot safely ejected after holding on as long as possible, the report stating that a second or two more would have likely resulted in his death.

The investigation has a number of implications. The fuel problem was not followed up on as it was not on a list of faults requiring immediate repair, but nonetheless 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing operations officer Col. John Rupp said keeping it in the air "was collectively poor judgment on the part of the squadron's maintenance department." The commanding officer, operations officer, aviation maintenance officer and operations duty officer have all been relieved of duty, while eight other marines and a sailor were reprimanded.

Maintenance standards have been upgraded and emergency training enhanced as a result. Flight simulators are set to include a scenario based on the accident. Lt. Dan Neubauer has been grounded and it is up to the deputy commandant for aviation whether he will be allowed to return to the air. Immediately after the accident, all F/A-18s were grounded and inspected. The Marines issued a bulletin to all other operators of the aircraft worldwide to warn them of the circumstances.

So far, the Marines and the United States Navy have identified 40 F/A-18 Hornets with the same problem. None of these have crashed.


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