It had not been my intent to broach the subject of the Marine F/A-18 crash in San Diego, but I was reading some of the inane comments floating out on the web. As someone who has dealt with aviation and military and sometimes military aviation over the last 30 years, I would like to come to the defense of pilots, and the military in general who are being maligned in those comments.
Some of the comments I read that got under my skin followed the themes:
“Why didn’t the pilot do the honorable thing and go down with his plane?”
“Why didn’t he try to steer clear of the residential area.”
“Military flight training over a residential area is irresponsible.”
I understand that the accident destroyed a family. The only person besides the surviving member of that family who regrets this incident the most is almost assuredly the pilot. This will haunt him. But it’s the same as driving down the road, hitting a patch of ice, sliding into another car and killing the occupants. It happens. It’s not intended. That’s why they call them accidents.
Point 1: The US military never trains for suicide. When the B-52s stood ready to make what was almost assuredly a one way mission to the Soviet Union, there was a plan to get back. The captain does NOT go down with the ship. He should to the best of his ability be the last one off, but suicidal behavior is frowned upon in the military. The pilot of the F/A-18 was trained to 1) complete the mission, 2) save the aircraft, 3) save himself. Not intentionally diving into houses is a given. Rumors (because there are few established facts yet) are that things were apparently going wrong with the plane and he was beelining back to base. Then things got worse. If the aircraft was no longer controllable, and he was reduced to the status of a passenger, it was time to get out. He parachuted very close to the crash site, which means he stayed in for a long time. My guess (and it is purely my guess) is he either thought it was going to clear, or knew it didn’t matter any more. You can only do what you can do.
Point 2: If you have a controllable aircraft with a good engine, you head for an airport. This is not a military rule. It’s universal aviation rule. If you don’t have a controllable aircraft, you get out. (That’s more a military rule since few civilian aircraft have parachutes much less ejection seats) That he was headed straight for Miramar says that he had control and an engine at some point. What happened between the decision to head home and the impact will come out in the accident investigation.
So why did he fly over a residential area? Because you can’t get to Miramar without flying over residential areas. Not because Miramar was built in the middle of a city. It wasn’t. It was built in the middle of a desert. The city grew around the base. Not the military’s fault. They have to deal with the environment other people have created.
Point 3: He was not engaging in military training over the city. He was engaged in military training at the ship offshore. He was transiting over the city with every intent of landing on the base, like every other aircraft that flies into an airport surrounded by urban terrain, including ones with issues.
Finally, the first law of aviation is very simple: Gravity Rules. The entire field of aviation; science, business, recreation and military is based on flouting that law. And every once in a while, Gravity wins. And then it’s usually a bad day for someone.