Illustrations by Ted Wilbur.
A fleet F/A-18 Hornet squadron sent a detachment to sea for carrier quals. A nugget who had only been in the squadron five weeks launched at approximately 0130 on his third flight of the day. The pilot reported to the carrier air traffic control center that he was ready for a turn downwind. Between that turn and the four-nautical-mile turn to final, the nugget dumped fuel to max trap weight, made two configuration changes, and, at the carrier air traffic control center’s (CATCC) request, cycled his Mode “C” twice. The pilot flew a below-average instrument approach and showed up on the ball with his wingtip lights extremely dim, which significantly degraded the landing signal officer’s (LSO) depth perception. The pilot, who later reported that he was feeling “a little exhausted,” flew a poor final approach, which culminated in an excessive sink rate close to the ramp. The LSO activated the wave-off lights less than two seconds prior to the jet striking the ramp. The jet hit 10 feet down the round down, on centerline, with both main mounts below the edge of the flight deck. The right main landing gear and tailhook were damaged by the impact. The hook engaged the three wire, but the hook point broke. The pilot executed bolter procedures and was instructed to divert to his home field. When he arrived at the home field, another pilot joined on him to assess the damage. The right main landing gear wheel and tire were canted 45 degrees inboard. The pilot performed a straight landing to the left side of the runway in accordance with NATOPS. As the jet slowed, it developed an uncontrollable right drift. The pilot ejected as the jet departed the runway. The pilot sustained major injuries; the jet was destroyed. When they launched, both the mishap pilot and his lead were on their third flight of the day and more than 12 hours crew day. Both pilots violated the squadron standard operating procedures on both counts. Prior to launch, the det. officer in charge tried to contact the squadron commanding officer for a waiver for the pilots, but was unable to reach him. The officer reported this to the pilots, but they elected to launch and no one stopped them.
Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, experience often comes from bad judgment. Kids, Ol’ Gramps realizes that mistakes happen, but nothing bakes my beans like a willful disregard of the rules. Several people involved with this one deliberately ignored a host of standard procedures, and we lost a jet and durn near lost one of our finest as a result! This wee lad was set up for failure from the get go. We got a flight lead who set a poor example by violating squadron procedures and allowing his wet-behind-the-ears wingie to do the same. We got an officer in charge who doesn’t seem to realize what bein’ in charge is all about, and we got paddles back there on his platform who is willing to wave a jet he can barely see. Someone should have called “knock it off!” on this one. Our nugget was fatigued and in over his head. The officer in charge and lead never should have let him go flying. What’s more, allowing him to take an immediate turn downwind and a four-mile hook was a bad call. That goofy light set up made it perty near impossible for paddles to figure out where that jet was heading. He should have had CATCC pull the jet off the approach, fix his lights, and try again. Make a circle kids and lets learn today’s lesson: When you are close to the line on a rule, think very carefully before you take your next step. Think about the example you are setting and what can go wrong. One of the hardest parts about being a leader is making the right call when it goes contrary to getting the job done. Now you kids skeedaddle, Gramps has some whittlin’ he needs to finish.