Uncertainty Still Surrounds Hornet Crash That Killed Marine Pilot

Capt. Taj T. Sareen, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron F/A-18 pilot, conducts pre-flight checks to ordnance loaded on the aircraft before flight operations. (VANESSA JIMENEZ/U.S. MARINE CORPS)
Capt. Taj T. Sareen, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron F/A-18 pilot, conducts pre-flight checks to ordnance loaded on the aircraft before flight operations. (VANESSA JIMENEZ/U.S. MARINE CORPS)

After a seven-month combat deployment conducting airstrikes on Islamic State targets in the Middle East, Marine Maj. Taj "Cabbie" Sareen had reached a final waypoint in the United Kingdom, just a flight across the Atlantic away from his parents, girlfriend and young daughter.

The handsome, gregarious 34-year-old F/A-18 Hornet pilot spent his waking hours in England eating hearty meals and FaceTiming with his family members.

All of his fellow Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 "Red Devils" knew Sareen was planning to propose, though it wasn't clear how or when he'd pop the question.

But minutes after takeoff from Royal Airfield Lakenheath on Oct. 21, 2015, on what was supposed to be a return flight to the United States, Sareen's aircraft crashed near the village of Redmere, the force of the impact leaving no chance for survival.

The investigation into the tragedy, obtained this month by Military.com, took nearly a year to complete in part because the cause of the crash was not immediately apparent, and officers ordered multiple engineering investigations and detailed analyses to better understand what went wrong.

The crash was not the result of a refueling mishap, as multiple outlets at the time reported; nor did Sareen "eject too late," as another publication indicated. In fact, the report shows he did not eject at all.

And while there has been a recent history of Navy and Marine Corps Hornet pilots experiencing hypoxic episodes in the cockpit, investigators decided evidence that Sareen tried to correct his aircraft dive ruled out such an incident.

In the end, the evidence seems to point to a problem with the aircraft's inertial navigation system that led to Sareen putting the system on standby mode. That, coupled with deeply overcast weather conditions, a low cloud ceiling, and another likely misalignment to an instrument that displays pitch and roll, may have cost the seasoned pilot his spatial awareness just long enough to put him in a dive from which he could not recover.

Ultimately, the document illustrates just how little can be known sometimes about what transpires in the cockpit of a single-seat fighter aircraft -- and how seemingly small variables can mean the difference between life and death in such a precise environment.

"While we may never know what ultimately caused this mishap, we should certainly study and discuss the numerous lessons presented in this investigation to better inform our decisions and prevent similar mishaps from happening in the future," wrote Col. William Swan, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 11, in his endorsement of the investigation.

Ultimately, the partial conclusions reached about the cause of Sareen's crash came down to a few comments made by the pilot. Sareen and the Red Devils had flown from Bahrain to Souda Bay, Crete, on Oct. 13, then from Crete to RAF Lakenheath, England, a week later on Oct. 20.

While squadron-mates said Sareen was eager to see his family, he wasn't showing the tell-tale signs of "get-home-itis," they said, a condition in which pilots can get sloppy or overlook mechanical problems in their eagerness to end a deployment.

When Sareen debriefed his flight to Lakenheath and was asked if there were any mechanical issues, he mentioned the inertial navigation system (INS), according to witness accounts, but brushed off the issue, saying "it's good."

On the day of the crash, after the morning briefing, Sareen told another pilot who would be completing the same flight that his aircraft would sometimes lose GPS reception and that the INS was showing poor signal.

If the weather got bad, he reportedly said, the aircraft would have to lead him on departure and on an instrument approach to land. But before Sareen got into his aircraft, the lead maintenance controller asked him about the INS system, and he once again shrugged off the question as a non-issue, the report found.

Sareen took off with five other Hornets from the squadron around 9:20 a.m. local time. During the short-lived flight, he radioed the flight lead once to say he was on his standby instruments, a message that indicated something was amiss with the primary cockpit system. The flight lead radioed for clarification, according to the investigation, but never received a response. Sareen's aircraft crashed at approximately 9:22 a.m.

With few conclusions about the cause of the crash, investigators made limited recommendations to improve aircraft safety moving forward. They recommended that MAG-11 develop more robust requirements to fly standby instruments and that the Advanced Warfighting Lab in China Lake, California, retest findings from the investigation to develop further conclusions.

What emerges most of all is a picture of Sareen as an exceptional pilot, teammate and family man, and a true loss to the Marine Corps.

Sareen, a qualified instructor, had logged 1,942 total flight hours over the course of his Marine Corps career, 1,589 of them in a Hornet. He had flown his last combat sortie Sept. 27, less than a month before the mishap flight.

"Maj. Sareen had just completed a seven-month deployment where his recent flight time exceeded almost every other Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot over the same period," the investigator wrote. "It goes without saying that he was more proficient in the aircraft than almost every other F/A-18 pilot in the Marine Corps, with the exception of fellow Red Devil pilots."

Maj. Gen. Michael Rocco, then commanding general of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, also expressed his sorrow at the tragedy.

"On behalf of the Marines and sailors of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, my heartfelt condolences are extended to the family and friends of Major Sareen," he wrote in an investigation endorsement. "He served his country honorably, and he will be missed by all of us."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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