F-18 crash in San Diego

Posted on 12. Dec, 2008 by in Featured

I have received a lot of questions on the crash of an F/A-18 Hornet in San Diego. First let me say that the biggest nightmare of a Tactical Aviator is dropping a jet into a neighborhood. It is something you think about often. It is why many pilots over the years have perished staying with the airplane instead of ejecting. They were trying to save it or get it away from a populated area. My thoughts and prayers are with the man who lost his family as well as the young Marine.

The reality of a “fly by wire” aircraft is that if you have a flight control or total electric failure there is nothing you can do. It literally works like a computer game; the stick sends input to the flight controls. If the computers (4 if memory serves) all fail, or you lose all electric power, then you are done. There is no point staying with the jet it has become totally uncontrollable.

Single engine operation: No big deal; in fact many of the Tactical aircraft in our militaries inventory are single engine. F-16 Viper, AV-8B Harrier, for example; even the new F-35 is a single engine fighter. I personally have 1,100 hours in the TA-4; a single engine Light Attack aircraft. I own part of a light single engine aircraft.

Duel engine aircraft are designed to fly on one engine. Again no big deal; personally I have 8 engine out landings (2 on board ship) from my Navy days, and 1 while flying airliners. I even diverted to NAS (now MCAS) Miramar in an F-4N with an engine shut down in the late 90’s. No doubt I went over the same route as the ill-fated F-18 as have hundreds over the years.

Two engines came into vogue in the sixties: initially jet fighters were a twin engine aircraft not for safety or survivability but for performance. The first production jet fighter the German ME-262 needed the thrust of two engines. As engine technology produced more thrust Fighters went to single engines F-86 for example. A rift developed in fighter doctrine in the late fifties; Interceptor (large equipped w/radar guided missiles/F-4) vs. fighter (small maneuverable gun fighter/F-8). Heavy Interceptors required the thrust of two engines. Small fighters wanted to save weight and went with one big engine in a small aircraft.

F-8 Crusader, the last Navy “Gun Fighter”.

3 F-4N Phantom II and 1 F-14D Tomcat Fighter Intercepters (2 engines/crew).

After Korea and Vietnam the Navy/Marine corps decided they wanted the survivability of two engines. The commercial industry had come to the same conclusion for safety reasons years prior. All new designs in the 70’s and 80’s were twin engine. EA-6B Prowler, E-2 Hawkeye, S-3 Viking, A-12 Avenger II (cancelled), F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet; all were designed to fly and recover aboard the aircraft carrier on a single engine. There were some exceptions, the F-16 and the AV-8 for example. With engine reliability high and cost considerations even higher the new F-35 shows a movement back to the future (single engine).

So what happened with the F/A-18 Hornet that crashed into San Diego? I will not speculate except to say that quite obviously something else catastrophic happened. The second engine failed or a flight control failure occurred. We will not know until the accident investigation is complete. Had the aircraft been in extremis (other than an engine failure) the pilot would have diverted onto San Clemente Island, or NAS North Island, or even ditched it, prior to crossing the beach. It is being reported that the second engine failed on final approach. This could have been caused by the engine being damaged when the first engine came apart, but not detected by the pilot or warning systems on board. Both engines are close together, if it was an uncontained failure (basically the engine explodes), parts could have damaged the second engine and yet remain undetectable. As always, pilot error is a possibility, however we are drilled for hours on single engine and other compound emergencies, in my opinion that is unlikely. I suspect another emergency developed that plunged the uncontrollable Hornet into the neighborhood.

I was also asked about who picks a divert airport. When operating off of the ship, in this case the USS Lincoln (my old ship), the ship does. VMFAT-101 is the training squadron for the F/A-18 Hornet; he was obviously working on his initial Carrier Qualification in the Hornet. Thus he was not fully qualified so had to be diverted.

No Responses to “F-18 crash in San Diego”

  1. Travis 3 January 2009 at 22:22 #

    A catastrophic engine failure on the F/A-18 is unheard of. Even if something like that were to happen then the Pilot would have received all the associated warnings for the other engine.

    Reports state his first engine failed after takeoff. You know and I know that he probably circled the ship receiving tech rep support. Someone thought it was a bad idea to bring him back aboard. Someone didn’t want another broken bird on the ship.

    Blowing the gear would have been one of the first things he did. You ever try to stiff leg back to base on one engine? Oh yeah…I’m sure he dumped fuel to get into landing configuration. So…stiff leg and dumped fuel?

    I’m going to speculate away. This guy ran out of gas.

  2. Chip 4 January 2009 at 20:54 #

    Thanks for the input; altho I disagree.

    First; catastrophic engine failure on the F/A-18 is not unheard of: I saw one myself on launch from the USS Midway. The Hornet ended up in the water.

    No doubt he circled the ship; however I suspect he was diverted immediately. The squadron was VMFA 101, the training squadron for the FA-18. Which means the pilot was most likely a student and thus not fully qualified. SOP would have sent him to the beach, not concern for where the jet ended up. No doubt squadron and ship reps communicated w/him but I doubt a. that a Boeing tech rep was aboard for CQ (carrier qualification) and b. even if he was his input would not be sought unless there was a compounding emergency.

    Blowing the gear down would have been the LAST thing he did not the first, if it was necessary. And in this case I’d say it was not; there was no mention of hydraulic failure. So normal gear accuation via the hyd from the good engine should have been available.

    Yes I have stiff legged it from the boat to a divert. Actually it happens often. The Navy/Marine aircraft have the numbers in their manuals for gear down and gear up diverts. It shows the precise fuel required to reach a given distance and the fuel burn etc. The first thing the ship/squadron reps would have done is figure those numbers before diverting him (thus the circling).

    I doubt he dumped fuel. He was CQing thus was probably already at landing weight or close when he launched. Besides you can not dump all your fuel. stand pipes prevent it from being dumped below a certain level and the low fuel light would have illuminated. If that had happened IMO he would have diverted to San Clemente Island.

    The jet burned, or at least was reported to. There was alot of smoke in the pictures so I do not think it ran out of gas. A transfer problem maybe, however I’m not familiar enough w/the Hornet to speculate. Thanks for yours tho!

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