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Pilot 'screamed in horror' when jet hit home

A military pilot who ejected from a crippled fighter over a San Diego neighborhood "screamed in horror" when he saw the jet had crashed into a home, according to documents released Tuesday.
Man walks past burning debris after a military jet crashed into homes in San Diego
A man is seen running by a fire-engulfed home in the University City neighborhood after a military jet crashed into homes in San Diego, California, Dec. 8, 2008. Str / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A military pilot who ejected from a crippled fighter over a San Diego neighborhood "screamed in horror" when he saw the jet had crashed into a home, according to documents released Tuesday.

Lt. Dan Neubauer described in a statement to investigators how he struggled to control the malfunctioning F/A-18D Hornet in the minutes before the Dec. 8 crash that killed four people on the ground and incinerated two homes.

Neubauer's statement, cluttered with military jargon, nonetheless provides a dramatic look inside the cockpit of the ailing aircraft as he flew toward tragedy.

The pilot was on a training flight from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln when he was forced to shut down one engine because of mechanical trouble. The hobbled jet was told to bypass a coastal Navy base that offered an approach over water and to instead fly inland over San Diego to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Attempted to get away from homes
When the plane's second engine failed short of the runway, he cursed, then attempted to direct the doomed jet away from homes, he wrote.

"I knew I had to get out. I pulled the nose up a little bit and then reached down between my legs for the ejection handle," Neubauer wrote.

"The canopy blew and then after what seemed like an eternity I was ejected," the statement said. Dangling below his parachute, he looked down to trace the jet's plunge.

"It had gone right into a house. I screamed in horror when I realized what had just happened," Neubauer wrote.

The statement, released to The Associated Press under federal open-records law, represents the pilot's first public comment on what happened that afternoon.

The military disciplined 13 members of the Marines and Navy after the crash, which was blamed on mechanical problems and a string of bad decisions that led Neubauer to bypass a potentially safe landing at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado.

Pilot seemed puzzled by decision
Previously released recordings of conversations between federal air controllers and the pilot show he was repeatedly offered a chance to land the plane at the Navy base, which sits at the tip of a peninsula with a flight path over San Diego Bay.

The statement shows Neubauer was first ordered to go to North Island after his engine trouble started. He was about 20 miles away from the base when that changed, and he was directed to go to Miramar.

According to a military investigation, officers at Miramar cleared the pilot to go to the inland base, favoring Miramar's longer runway and assuming the pilot was closer to the base.

At one point, Neubauer appeared to be puzzled when ordered to go to Miramar rather than North Island. "I repeated the information to make sure that I understood," he wrote. "They replied affirmative."

Rapid decision-making
The statement depicts rapid decision-making in which the pilot is monitoring his troubled engines, watching his fuel, location and speed and talking with military and other officials about his plight. Cloud cover is a complication. At one point, radio transmission become garbled as he's getting directions.

Nearing Miramar, "I felt the aircraft performance degrade and noticed the engine noise winding down. ... I moved the throttle forward as I cursed and noticed it didn't do anything," he wrote.

He recalled possibly trying to restart the first engine but quickly realized "it was to no avail."

"I was about to transmit that I had lost my left engine but my left generator dropped off-line and I lost all my electrical power," he wrote.

Moments later he ejected.

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. In the weeks following the crash, a lingering question has been why the pilot didn't attempt a landing at North Island over open water. Miramar is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by residential areas that include a high school.

The statement was part of a previously unreleased report on the crash by military investigators.

The report includes statements of military officials who agreed with the decision to land at Miramar after the pilot reported trouble. Their names are redacted.

Jet appeared to have enough fuel
One said it didn't seem unusual to land at Miramar because the jet appeared to have enough fuel to fly the additional 10 miles beyond North Island and it was a "familiar field" to the pilot. This person said the "ease of maintenance and the ability of the pilot to get into a spare (jet)" also weighed in favor of Miramar.

Another described approving plans to land at Miramar, thinking the jet had enough fuel.

"This was not to facilitate the ease of maintenance, but rather to permit him an approach to a familiar field — indeed his HOME field," the official wrote. The statement read that Miramar also had a longer runway.

The investigators' report criticized the pilot for failing to more forcefully challenge the decision to fly inland to Miramar.