The Disorient Express
Despite the best training and technology, why do pilots still die from not knowing which end is up?
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
DEPT OF DEFENSE
(Page 4 of 7)
In the case of Major Young, it was all over in less than a minute.
Young, call sign Grumpy One, flew the lead aircraft in a formation of two F-15s in a combat exercise against two F/A-18s over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles west of Cape Arch, Oregon. The visibility was 10 miles or greater, with the horizon discernible in all directions.
While Young’s wingman, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzgerald, call sign Grumpy Two, engaged the two F/A-18s, Cowboy One and Two, Young began a climbing right turn that peaked at 18,800 feet, then began descending in the direction of his wingman and the other two aircraft.
As he did so, Cowboy Two, having maneuvered into position behind Grumpy Two, radioed over a common frequency monitored by all the pilots that he had “killed” one of the two F-15s.
By now, Young’s descent rate had nearly doubled, to 30,000 feet per minute, and he was nearing 5,000 feet—a floor set for the exercise to allow for a margin of safety; at that altitude, Young should have broken off the engagement.
Eight seconds later, Young’s airplane hit the water. Young’s wingman told investigators that all he saw was “a big white splash that reminded me of Niagara Falls.”
Young’s remains were recovered along with some of the wreckage, the pieces of which were no larger than “a small trash can,” in the words of the accident report. With the airplane almost completely destroyed, analysis of the engine and airframe was limited to a review of maintenance records and interviews with ground personnel. These things, along with the fact that Young had never indicated a problem and the airplane had performed as expected, strongly suggested that the problem was not mechanical. (Coincidentally, a few months after Young’s crash, a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C broke apart in flight, setting off a fleet-wide grounding of F-15s to investigate failing longerons.)
With the airplane’s flight data recorder also destroyed, investigators were limited to reconstructing the flight path using radar tracking data, videotapes of the other airplanes’ head-up displays (which project critical flight information on a transparent display above the instrument panel), and data from their flight recorders, in addition to the testimony of the other pilots. Investigators determined that Young’s airplane hit the water at an angle of 24 degrees at a speed of 630 mph.