One of the aircraft, catastrophically damaged, erupted into flames, forcing the pilot to eject. The other aircraft was damaged but flyable, and its pilot would go on to execute a remarkable arrested landing at Naval Station North Island, San Diego.
The Nov. 9, 2016, collision, which incredibly resulted in only minor injuries for the pilots, was caused by both pilots failing to recognize that they were on a collision course until it was too late, a command investigation obtained by Military.com found.
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Investigators point to insufficient hours in the cockpit -- an endemic problem for Marine Corps Hornet squadrons in recent years -- as a key causal factor.
"This mishap brings into sharp focus the difference between currency and proficiency," Col. William Swan, then the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group-11, wrote in an endorsement of the investigation's findings. "Given sustained low flight hours across the F/A-18 community, our aircrew have a smaller scope of experience and significantly reduced tactical proficiency."
Greater operational risk will continue to be an issue until the number of training sorties can increase and their quality improve, Swan added.
"The question for us then becomes not 'if' we can schedule a certain sortie, rather 'should' we schedule that sortie," he said.
Both aircraft involved in the mishap were F/A-18A++ Hornets assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314, "The Black Knights," out of Miramar, California.
The pilot of the first aircraft was a fighter attack instructor and weapons and tactics instructor who had flown 15.2 hours in the previous 30 days, not much beyond the 11 hours that naval aviation leaders have called the "tactical hard deck," or minimum for safe flight.
The pilot of the second aircraft was more junior. After recent knee surgery, he had flown just 3.1 hours in the previous 60 days.
The aircraft were flying for an annual training event called the "MAG-11 Turkey Shoot," a competition that allows squadrons within the MAG to compete for points based on performance. Both pilots in the mishap flight had most recently flown two days earlier in a mission in which they were simulating enemy aircraft.
But training and readiness standards dictated that each pilot have two prerequisite sorties before a mission like that of Nov. 9. The VMFA-314 squadron commander waived that requirement for the pilot with fewer flight hours, the investigation found.
The Nov. 9 flight was an air-to-air mission. The two aircraft took off from Miramar, separated, and set up for a "merge" near the center of the designated training area. Following that, the first pilot entered a nose-high maneuver that ultimately would have him flying inverted. The second pilot began a high-G turn, setting up for a second merge of the aircraft.
While inverted, according to the investigation, the first pilot assessed the flight path of the other aircraft and realized they were on a collision course. He attempted to roll his aircraft upright to avoid a crash, but didn't give any verbal deconfliction directives to his wingman.
The second pilot also saw the impending disaster. He executed a nose-low maneuver, but it was too late. The two aircraft collided just before 8 p.m. local time, the right wing of the first aircraft striking the left wing of the second.
The first aircraft was more severely damaged. It caught fire and began to corkscrew.
Having lost control of the plane, the pilot ejected roughly 19,000 feet above the ground. He sustained a minor cut above his right eyebrow, but otherwise landed unharmed in the Pacific, where he was rescued by an MH-60 helicopter dispatched from the carrier Carl Vinson.
The second aircraft sustained extensive damage to its left wing. Portions of the outer wing had broken off entirely. But the pilot found the aircraft was still flyable, and executed an arrested landing at nearby North Island that earned praise from Swan, the commander of MAG-11.
"[The pilot] displayed exceptional airmanship when he successfully landed [the aircraft] after significant portions of its flight control surfaces were destroyed," Swan wrote in his endorsement of the investigation.
The crash was caused because both pilots failed to recognize signs that their flight paths would intersect until it was too late, the investigation found.
Swan added that it was an error in judgment on the part of VMFA-314 commander Lt. Col. D.J. Byrum to waive the additional prerequisite sortie for the less-proficient pilot.
"Basic fighter maneuvers are some of the highest-risk flying and training events any pilot participates in," the investigator wrote. "Training rules and other planning and briefing measures are in place to minimize and manage the risk associated with that high-risk training."
The investigator recommended that the incident be used by other squadrons as a cautionary tale, with details of the mishap briefed to pilots and video from the recovered aircraft heads-up display used to brief aircrew on the importance of flight path deconfliction.
For the Marine Corps, this was one of three F/A-18 Hornet crashes in the space of three months at the end of 2016, one of which resulted in a fatality.
In early 2017, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, then-head of Marine Corps Aviation, acknowledged that only about 25 percent of the Marines' 280 Hornets were immediately ready to fly, with much of the fleet sidelined for maintenance and spare parts. The lack of available aircraft has contributed to the dearth of flight hours for Hornet pilots.
The airframe reached an average flight hour low in 2015, with an average of 8.8. flight hours per month for non-deployed squadrons, Stars and Stripes reported. Since then, thanks to an aggressive readiness recovery plan, that average has climbed.
In a late June interview shortly before his retirement, Davis told Military.com that the Marine Corps aviation enterprise was averaging 16.9 hours, though slightly less for Hornet pilots.
"That won't get better until the inventory numbers get better in F-18 and the reliability gets better with the old airplanes," he said. "Right now, we have a pretty high break rate on the legacy F-18."
The Marine Corps and Navy have asked a retired Air Force three-star general to conduct an independent readiness review on the F/A-18 to determine how to improve reliability on the aging aircraft, Davis said.
"We're going to get out of legacy F-18 faster, not as fast as we can, but I can't just walk away from our requirements," he said. "I've still got additional metal I've got to put on the line for these units."