The pilot who was forced to ditch his F/A-18E Super Hornet in the Celebes Sea after an attempted carrier landing aboard the USS Carl Vinson was a seasoned Navy captain and a leader of the Vinson's carrier air wing, Military.com has learned.
The April 21 incident took place as the deployed Vinson was transiting through the Western Pacific.
According to a command investigation obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the mishap was a result of the pilot's failure to maintain on-speed angle of attack after the Super Hornet began to lose hydraulic fluid.
Factors that contributed to the loss of the aircraft, investigators found, included problematic communication with an inexperienced tower representative and a perceived rush to land the aircraft safely aboard the Vinson.
The report offers insights into the challenges inherent in flying a fighter aircraft, even for the most seasoned and experienced pilots.
Pilot Not Identified
The investigation does not identify the pilot, but states that he is a Navy captain with 3,800 flight hours in the F/A-18. There are only two Navy captains in the command structure of the Vinson's Carrier Air Wing 2: the wing commander, Capt. Tom Barber, and the deputy commander, Capt. Gregory Newkirk.
A spokesman for Naval Air Forces Pacific, Cmdr. Ronald Flanders, would not confirm the identity of the mishap pilot. But details from Newkirk's official biography, including his total number of flight hours accumulated, match the description of the mishap pilot in the command investigation.
In addition, Newkirk's biography notes that he has served as a designated strike lead in four West Coast air wings. The investigation states that the mishap pilot was designated strike lead for Carrier Air Wing 2.
Flanders said the pilot, reached for comment, did not want to further discuss the incident.
"Capt. [name redacted] is well-known and respected in the aviation community, and is highly regarded by his fellow CVW-2 aviators," the investigation states.
According to the report, the Super Hornet had just been reported ready to fly after 98 days in a "down" status to complete a functional flight check. The captain was selected to fly the aircraft as it was common for planes to experience minor issues after time spent in down status.
The assignment of the day was a Red Air mission, in which he would simulate enemy aircraft for training purposes. The captain launched and completed the mission without incident, the report states.
But after completing the mission, he reported a burning smell in the cockpit. About an hour after launch, more problems started.
The Super Hornet's control panel indicated a hydraulic fluid caution. Then the plane's wingman spotted a "steady stream of fluid" coming from underneath the plane, near the right main landing gear door. The pilot began to exit the aircraft stack, or holding formation, and work through established procedures for hydraulic fluid loss.
The pilot began steady communication with the tower representative, an unnamed lieutenant, to complete the steps in order to land the Super Hornet safely. But multiple cautions and warnings, as the pilot completed a flight control system reset, were not verbalized by the tower representative, the investigation found.
And several pieces of information about steps taken by the captain flying the aircraft and the status of the plane were not communicated to the tower.
One of these unverbalized warnings was about the increased likelihood that the aircraft would yaw, or move against the direction of a desired turn, when operating on a single engine as angle-of-attack is exceeded.
At this point, the aircraft was flying on one engine, with landing gear and refueling probe extended, as the captain worked to maintain control of the plane and hydraulic fluid cautions continued to blare.
"The cycling [hydraulics] cautions were very distracting and [the pilot] became overwhelmed with flying the jet," investigators found. " ... Despite over 4,000 flight hours, he never had a situation where the jet was fighting him so much."
Things started to go really wrong. After restarting the right engine, the pilot climbed and angle of attack increased from 8.5 to 9.3 degrees. At 9.4 degrees, the aircraft started to move out of control. The captain maxed throttles at both engines, then pulled them back. Inadvertently, he lit the afterburner for just the left engine, which exacerbated the adverse yaw, pulling the plane further out of control.
The plane began to buck and roll, now completely outside controlled flight. Ejection was quickly becoming the only option.
As the aircraft dove, the captain punched out, submerging for a moment when he hit the water, then popping back up. He briefly became tangled in his parachute, but was able to free himself and inflate his life preserver.
He would quickly be recovered by an MH-60S chopper from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 4 and returned to the Vinson, shaken but uninjured.
"[The pilot] was emotionally affected when later talking about the water entry and feeling of drowning," investigators observed.
'A Very Timely and Correct Decision'
Though the $88.5 million aircraft was lost, the investigation found the pilot's extensive experience may well have saved his own life.
"Capt. [name redacted] made a very timely and correct decision to eject," the report states. "The surprise and intensity of the departure ... could have easily caused a less experienced pilot to delay ejection, resulting in a loss of life."
The report did fault the pilot and the tower for failures in communication about relevant warnings and recommendations, finding the tower representative was not experienced enough to handle the emergency situation and communicate the appropriate information the pilot needed to make decisions.
Because of the captain's experience level, he should have been more "proactive and authoritative" with the tower in managing communications, investigators found.
A sense of urgency to land from the tower and from the air officer on the carrier may have increased the chaos, the report found. And the critical mass of emergencies and distractions contributed to degrade the pilot's attention to the instruments, which resulted in his inability to maintain on-speed angle-of-attack.
The investigation recommended no disciplinary action for the pilot. While errors had been made, investigators found, none was intentional or due to negligence.
In keeping with the report's recommendations, the captain discussed crew resource management and lessons learned from the mishap with Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, then commander of the Vinson carrier strike group.
The carrier air wing also re-evaluated the required qualifications for the officer serving as tower representative, Flanders said.
"The event, in combination with the safety investigation report, was an impetus behind a comprehensive review of the qualification process for the role as a tower representative that was enacted within weeks of the mishap," he said.
The Vinson returned to its San Diego homeport in late June following a six-month deployment in the Pacific.