Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

March-April 2000

A Canyon Catastrophe

A flight of two F/A-18 Hornets was on a two-fold training mission: one part dissimilar air combat training (DACT) and the second, low-altitude training. The day before, the squadron executive officer had briefed the fliers on the hazards of low-level flights and covered flight through canyon areas, emphasizing the danger of such flights close to the ground.

One pilot was the lead, under training, while the wingman was the mission commander. The DACT portion of the mission was completed without incident. Subsequently, the lead pilot determined the flight did not have sufficient fuel to return to base as briefed, which meant curtailing the low-level route. To conserve fuel the leader flew along the initial portion of the low-level route at 5,000 feet and 250 knots. When the low-level route intersected the canyon portion of the flight, lead descended into the low-level environment.

The mission commander lost sight of the leader as the flight commenced the route. Approximately one minute later, the mission commander observed a bright flash ahead and low on the canyon’s left wall. The flash then changed to what was perceived as a fireball followed by thick black smoke. The Hornet had crashed. The pilot was killed, the aircraft destroyed.

Investigators determined that the F/A-18 struck the canyon wall about 75 feet from the edge of a sloping ridge line in a high-G, high-angle-of attack, right banked turn. There was no evidence of engine or systems failure, nor any sign of an ejection attempt.

Grampaw Pettibone says…

Shouldn’ta happened, but it did, so learn from it. The lead pilot’s Hornet was in a hard right-hand turn within the confines of the canyon walls, and he either didn’t see the ridge line approaching or did not realize his flight path was below it. It’s also possible that he became aware of the ridge line too late to avoid it.

Would it have helped if the flight had practiced low-level maneuvers over less hazardous terrain before descending into the canyon environment? Maybe. The investigators did conclude that the lead pilot had insufficient low-level flight experience for operating in a canyon area. Plus, he hadn’t had enough rest before the mission. He was an extremely motivated aviator but considered by some to be overconfident. Not a good combination for pilots flying high-performance aircraft fast and close to Mother Earth.

Seniors in the chain of command, including the mission commander, could have exercised better judgment in handling the preparation for this flight.