Routine flight training nearly turned deadly last year when a F-5N Tiger II tactical fighter stalled out before inverting and plummeting toward the sea, according to an investigation obtained by Navy Times.
The Navy reservist pilot was able to eject safely from the jet before it crashed into waters off the Florida Keys on Aug. 9, 2017.
But a redacted copy of the mishap reveals a harrowing few minutes for the uninjured pilot and offers a firsthand look at the frantic realities of parachuting into open waters.
It does not blame anyone for the mishap or recommend discipline against the aviator but notes that he was flying at an altitude where certain aerial maneuvers are prohibited when the jet lost control.
“All reasonably available evidence was collected and revealed no adverse line of duty or misconduct determination,” the investigator wrote.
The pilot — whose name is redacted in the report — was flying a standard training mission for the “Sun Downers” of Fighter Composite Squadron 111 that day, playing the role of an aerial adversary, according to the report.
The flight seemed routine until after he heard the call of “Fights On” and he "pulled the nose toward vertical … and noticed the nose tracking slow” at about the 70-degree mark, according to his official statement.
He tried to keep the nose from “getting parked close to vertical,” but the right rudder input seemed sluggish.
“I do not recall an altitude or airspeed as I was looking at my opponent at this time,” he said. “The aircraft departed controlled flight.”
That laconic statement belies the chaos that ensued over the coming seconds.
The jet inverted, slicing and rolling left before kicking into a fully inverted left spin, according to the report.
“Knock it off, Viper 2, watch the deck,” his colleague in the other jet warned.
But the jet continued to fall.
Upside down, the pilot recalled seeing “a number of items from the cockpit collect on the canopy above me."
“I think the pens came out of my g-suit pocket.”
With the altimeter reading between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, he said that he tried to apply procedures to right the aircraft. He moved to roll the jet upright but failed, a sign he believed that the plane was gyrating after the stall.
“The situation was unbelievably disorienting as I was ‘hanging in the straps’ and waiting for control effectiveness to return,” the pilot said.
“Watch your altitude,” the other pilot warned again. “WATCH THE DECK!”
“I remember thinking I was rapidly losing the opportunity to eject as my altitude decreased,” the pilot said. “I grabbed the handles and commanded ejection.”
The next few seconds became a blur.
“I remember seeing the canopy fly away immediately and then remember the jolt of the seat firing,” he said. “I recall the feeling of being weightless or free fall and thinking about the parachute.”
“I remember being incredulous at the state of the situation and hardly able to form coherent thoughts as my mind reeled through the events of the last few minutes,” he said.
The jet’s debris began splashing in the water below him. He braced for impact.
His life preserver deployed and the chute draped in front of him.
“I remember waves forcing water in my mouth 4-5 times as I struggled with the resistance of the chute,” the pilot recalled.
He fought to get free of his parachute but soon heard flying overhead and was comforted by the sound.
After struggling to inflate his raft and being annoyed by the fact it “didn’t just have RAFT printed on it in big bold writing,” he hooked an arm into it and worked to untangle the parachute cords knotted around his legs and back.
“This was difficult and not always possible with one hand,” he said. “At one point I remember the raft starting to get out of my reach.”
Finally free of the cords, he timed a large swell to finally hoist himself over the hump of the raft to safety.
“I took a small moment to rest and again thank God for my small success,” he said.
The unidentified pilot entered the naval aviation jet training pipeline in 2004 and completed initial Super Hornet instruction the following year.
He transitioned from active duty to selected reserve in 2012, according to the report.
He had accrued nearly 2,512 hours of total naval aviation flight time — 1,248 of them spent in the Tiger’s cockpit.
A helicopter soon arrived and a rescue swimmer helped get him onto the basket and out of the sea.
“We exchanged some conversation amidst asking if I would like to go to base or the hospital,” the pilot said. “I answered base, but about a minute later was told we were going to the hospital.”
Parts of the jet were recovered soon after the crash, but most of the aircraft sank beneath 3,000 feet of water. Navy officials say they’ll leave it there.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.