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Questions linger in deadly San Diego jet crash

Two weeks after a Marine Corps plane slammed into a San Diego residential area, killing four people, questions have arisen about the decision to direct the hobbled fighter over homes to an inland airfield.
Military Jet Crash
This image shows the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, background, as smoke rises from a fire in a suburban neighborhood, foreground, after an F-18 military jet crashed in San Diego. Denis Poroy / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two weeks after a Marine Corps plane slammed into a San Diego residential area, killing four people, questions have arisen about the decision to direct the hobbled fighter over homes to an inland airfield when a nearby base offered a route across open water.

The cause of the fiery Dec. 8 crash is still being investigated. Military officials have depicted a chain of events in which first one engine failed on the F/A18D Hornet — and then the second quit while the pilot was attempting to reach a landing spot.

It could turn out to be "a one-in-1 million occurrence," Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

However, the rarity of the double engine failure hasn't dampened speculation that the deaths of four members of one family might have been averted. The pilot ejected safely.

Generals have defended the decision
Marine generals have defended the choice to send the Hornet to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, taking it over the University City neighborhood where the crash incinerated two homes, damaged three others and killed four members of one family.

The Miramar base is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by thickly packed residential areas that include a high school.

Less than 10 miles away, however, the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado sits at the tip of a peninsula and the flight path from the south crosses San Diego Bay.

"Why not go to North Island?" asked Louis Rodolico, who lives near the Miramar base.

"All we're saying is when you have a damaged aircraft, don't bring it over a populated zone, especially when you have a world of options," Rodolico said.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Rick Ramirez, who lives near Miramar, said at a community forum last week that the pilot could have easily flown the plane to North Island, but it would have been an inconvenience for Marine maintenance crews to retrieve the crippled aircraft.

Military officials said that after the first engine faltered, Miramar was a straight shot and that going to North Island would have required more engine thrust.

However, F/A18D Hornets can fly with one engine, and dual engine failures are rare.

Was other option seriously considered?
That leaves questions about how much consideration was given to sending the pilot to North Island. And was a runway available?

The amount of fuel on the jet, weather, the pilot's experience and the aircraft's capability to fly with malfunctioning equipment would all be factors in determining where to go in a flight emergency.

But a paucity of information has made it difficult to assess the call made that day.

Nothing has been disclosed about where and when the problem with the first engine started. The military hasn't identified the aircraft's position when the decision was made to go to Miramar, or where the closest landing strip was when that decision was made.

It's also unknown what discussions took place between the pilot and civilian and military air controllers, or if returning to the carrier 50 miles offshore where the plane had taken off was an option.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor declined to comment and referred questions to the military.

Not all details being disclosed
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Manuel Delarosa, declined to disclose the plane's location when the engine trouble started or whether the aircraft was capable of reaching Coronado, saying to do so could compromise the investigation.

"We have to be very careful to get all the details correct and make sure the right folks are evaluating whatever information we can gather," Delarosa said.

In private briefings with members of Congress, military officials have reportedly said there were factors that made landing at North Island unfeasible but those issues have not been disclosed publicly.

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.