PHOENIX — Federal investigators blame the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the pilot and operator of a privately-owned military jet for the death of a Marine killed last year when the jet crashed into his truck in Arizona.
The National Transportation Safety Board report said the pilot of the BAE Systems Hawk jet took off too early, noting that he lifted off while traveling more than 10 mph below normal takeoff speed on March 11, 2015. The British-built jet flying on a mission for the Air Force wobbled, veered off the left side of the Marine Corps Air Station-Yuma runway and eventually hit a pickup occupied by Lance Cpl. Anthony T. DuBeau. The 23-year-old from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was providing safety oversight for a construction crew working alongside the runway.
The pilot, an active-duty Air National Guard A-10 pilot flying as a contractor for Quincy, Illinois-based Air USA, Inc., told investigators the aircraft's nose "became light" as he approached takeoff speed.
The NTSB concluded the pilot set the aircraft trim to a setting that made its nose lift off early and that it's likely he "instinctively" pulled back on the control stick to initiate takeoff when he felt the plane rising. The plane lost lift because of its slow speed and veered off the runway.
That setting was developed by Air USA to make the plane act more like American fighter jets such as the F-16. But the Hawk manual specifically says such trim settings shouldn't be made, according to the report. The agency also noted that bomb dispensers mounted on the jet's wings likely made the aircraft more likely to stall.
Calls to Air USA seeking comment on Tuesday and Wednesday were not returned.
The plane was on a mission to train Air Force ground spotters who direct attack aircraft. The pilot and a passenger were unhurt, but the plane was heavily damaged.
The NTSB blamed the Air Force for failing to oversee operations of its contractors, saying that it did not follow a Defense Department directive that all contractor aircraft must be assessed and an ongoing oversight program put in place. Instead, the Air Force chose to rely on certification and ongoing oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"However, because the airplane's missions were flown under the umbrella of "public aircraft," the FAA was not providing, nor was it required to provide, any oversight beyond issuance of the airplane's initial airworthiness certificate," the report said. "As such, the operator was effectively operating without oversight at the time of the accident."
An Air Force spokesman said the report was being reviewed.
The lack of oversight probably allowed Air USA to keep using a takeoff procedure not approved by the manufacturer and allowed the inadequately reviewed bomb racks to be used, the NTSB said.
The Marine's death would have been avoided if the Marine Corps had not allowed construction crews to work alongside a runway in use, according to the NTSB. Such actions would not have been allowed at a civilian airport, the NTSB added.
The Marine Corps noted in a statement that the Yuma base is a shared civilian-military facility and its operations were in full compliance with defense department policies. The base is reviewing its practices now that the NTSB report has been released, said base spokesman Capt. Jose M. Negrete in a statement.
"It's a classic example of a sequence of events leading to the crash, any one of which by itself is relatively innocuous," said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona campus. "But when you add them together, then it culminates in the accident."
The immediate events which caused the accident were the 3-degree up pitch setting, and the pilot's error in lifting off while going too slow, Waldock said.
"We bring in operations, we bring in the airport, we bring in the aircraft procedures that are being used by the operator, and it ultimately comes down to the pilot," he said. "Usually when I describe the set of errors, I call it human error, not pilot error. There's a tendency to call everything pilot error, and usually the pilot's got a lot of help causing the accident, as it was in this case."
Air USA operates former military aircraft such as the Hawk as a contractor for various service branches. The Hawk was designed as a high-performance jet trainer and light attack aircraft and is operated by numerous countries.