Image: Jet engulfed in flames in the debris of homes in San Diego
Ron Belanger  /  Reuters file
Recordings of conversations between air controllers and the pilot of a F/A-18D that crashed in San Diego, Calif., reveal that the pilot at least twice was offered a chance to put the plane down at an air station with an approach over water. The pilot instead took another route and crashed into homes on Dec. 8, killing four people.
updated 3/3/2009 9:11:18 PM ET 2009-03-04T02:11:18

A pilot struggling to control a crippled Marine Corps jet bypassed a chance to land at a coastal Navy base and instead flew toward an inland base, where minutes later the fighter crashed into a San Diego neighborhood and killed four people, recordings released Tuesday revealed.

Military officials announced they had disciplined 13 Marines for a series of avoidable mechanical and human errors that led to the crash, which killed four members of the same family, including two children.

"It was collectively bad decision-making," said Col. John Rupp, operations officer for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Recordings of conversations between federal air controllers and the pilot of the F/A-18D Hornet show the pilot repeatedly was offered a chance to land the plane at the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado. The base sits at the tip of a peninsula with a flight path over water.

Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration tapes disclose, the pilot decided to fly the jet, which had lost one engine and was showing signs of trouble with the second, to the inland Miramar base, which is about 10 miles north of Coronado.

That route took him over the University City neighborhood, where the Dec. 8 crash incinerated two homes and damaged three others.

"This was a tragic incident that could have been prevented," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who was among the lawmakers who received a closed-door briefing Tuesday on the results of the Marine Corps' investigation into the crash, said in a statement.

The pilot and senior officers "did not consult their checklists and follow appropriate procedure," Hunter said. Had those rules been followed, "the crash would not have occurred."

Four officers at Miramar have been relieved of duty for failing to follow safety procedures and allowing the Hornet to fly over the residential area, while nine other military personnel received lesser reprimands.

Right engine went down
According to the military, the jet's right engine went out due to an oil leak shortly after the fighter left the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on a training flight. The aircraft can fly on one engine, so losing power in one of the General Electric turbofan engines was not cause for extreme concern.

At the same time, the plane was having trouble moving fuel from its tanks to the engines. Marine Corps aviation rules dictate that a plane with such a combination of mechanical failures should land immediately. The investigation determined the best and safest option was to bring the aircraft down at Coronado, not Miramar.

As the jet approached Miramar, the left engine failed because it was getting too little fuel, leaving the plane without power. Seventeen seconds later, the pilot ejected.


Rep. Davis: Plane should've been grounded
"This plane should not have even been in use," Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said in a statement. "There was ambiguity as to whether this particular aircraft should have been grounded due to the mechanical concerns."

It's difficult to determine the pilot's precise location from the tapes, but he reported his position as 20 miles south of Coronado, flying at 13,000 feet with 20 to 30 minutes of fuel remaining, less than a minute before he was asked by controllers if he wanted to land at Coronado, according to the recordings.

When air controllers told him a runway was available at Coronado, the pilot said, "I'm actually going to try to take it to Miramar if possible."

According to the tapes, air controllers gave the pilot instructions that would allow for a landing at Coronado or Miramar. At one point he was given a heading to follow but indicated he was having trouble with the jet.

"I'm trying, sir, but single engine," the pilot said.

The pilot said he wanted to land at Miramar and told controllers to have emergency crews ready on the ground.

The pilot told the air controllers at one point he was within sight of Miramar, but about two minutes later, according to the tapes, an unidentified pilot reported seeing smoke on the ground near Miramar.

The pilot ejected safely. The Marine Corps has not decided whether to discipline him, Hunter told The Associated Press.

Four members of family killed
Four members of a Korean family were killed in their home — Young Mi Yoon, 36; her daughters Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months; and her mother Suk Im Kim, 60. Kim was visiting from South Korea to help her daughter move across town and adjust to the arrival of her second child.

Marine generals initially defended the choice to send the Hornet to Miramar. Since the crash, a lingering question has been why the pilot didn't attempt a landing at Coronado over open water.

The tapes indicate that the ailing jet was closer to Coronado when the pilot reported a possible problem with the second engine. Miramar is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by residential areas that include a high school.

Miramar dates to 1917, when the site was used to train troops headed to World War I. As late as the 1950s, it was still miles beyond San Diego's urban fringe, but homes have since been built right up to the edge of the base, where the Navy established its "Top Gun" fighter training school in 1969.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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