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The War Nerd / December 10, 2008

The F/A-18 that crashed on to a Korean family’s house in Miramar yesterday had me remembering that movie Donnie Darko. That’s the one where the guy has to decide whether to let a jet engine fall on his bedroom or not, because he knows in advance it’s going to happen and he has the option of following an extra in a bunny suit out of the house or staying home to wait for Pratt & Whitney to drop in. It’s some shit about predestination vs. free will, and in the meantime you get a lot of overproduced 80s hair music, and between the religious part and the soundtrack of my rotten high school days, that movie got me down in a major way. As I recall, the hero decides to stay in bed and get crushed to death by the engine because it’ll save this cute girl’s life. Some kind of deep meaning crap.

It’s not so cute when it happens on the news. It wasn’t a mopey teen hero that got squashed by the F-18, it was the classic hardworking immigrant family. Korean Christians, in fact. The only survivor was the dad, who worked hard all his life to move his wife, two kids and grandma from their cramped little condo to this big new house. And a few months after they move in, an F-18 on a “training mission” somehow manages to lose both engines and falls out of the sky, hits their street, and bounces right on to their house before it blows up.

The father of the family went on the air to ask other people who’ve had horrible stuff happen to tell him how to deal with it. His pastor was with him. I always wonder how the pastor is going to explain it to somebody like this. I mean you can only take the old “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform” line so far. Mysterious is one thing, but a military jet has to land on your little residential street where nothing worse than a stray cat ever happened, and then bounce—bounce!—right on the house where your success-story immigrant family is doing their upwardly mobile chores? That’d be a little too mysterious for me, if I was the Korean Methodist dad looking at the ashes. If that Pastor started giving me that line about “We can’t know what God has in mind for us,” I’d start by saying—no, I’d start by shooting the smug bastard, then saying to his corpse, “Well maybe not but we can let Him know that this is an unacceptable outcome!” I’d defect to Satan if it was me, or at least the Mormons.

One reason this is a little too mysterious is that the Navy’s whole excuse for picking the original F-18 (the “/A” was added later) was that it was a two-engine plane, so supposedly it was safer than the one-engine F-16 the Air Force chose. See, they were supposed to go for the same design to save costs, like I wrote about in an old column where I said I never liked the F/A-18 from the start.

The official story is that both engines failed at the same time, so the pilot had no choice but to bail. Of course this story comes from a “congressional aide,” which means he or she doesn’t know what the fuck he or she or it is talking about, but AP bought it anyway.

I wish they’d assign reporters who actually think to these stories. What are the odds that both engines failed at exactly the same time? Before you get your calculator out, remember the X factor here: “training flight.” This was a rookie pilot, and if I had to bet I’d put my money on him panicking, ejecting and letting the chips, meaning that big heavy expensive jet, fall where they may. I’d take that theory over simultaneous twin-engine failure any day.

The fact that the pilot bailed out successfully is another little wrinkle you have to wonder about here. That old bit about the captain going down with the ship may be a myth, but you do sort of expect a Marine Corps aviator to put his own life on the line to steer the plane away from a residential area. A plane isn’t a rock, it doesn’t fall straight down like a chopper does. Even on landing approach (low speed), a plane has some momentum, some glide in the wings. You can turn it a little, not much but a little, like an old Plymouth when the power steering conks out.

The Korean dad whose family was wiped out said the pilot was “a treasure” whatever that means, and said he forgave him.

I always wonder where they get these quotes. If some rookie pilot dropped his jet on my family and turned them into bulgoki, the only prayers I’d be offering for him would involve pentangles and carefully-negotiated contracts with Rent-A-Demon. Do people really say this stuff or does the media just make it up for them off a standard form they keep on hand?

I feel more like this Chechen dad whose family was wiped out in a crash a few years ago in Switzerland.

Turned out one of the local Swiss air controllers had fallen asleep on the job, and sent a whole Russian jet load of people to Hell. This Chechen researched the case, drove to Switzerland, and blew the controller away at his own front door. I salute that Chechen. And I’ve known enough Koreans to know that they’re as tough as the Chechens are. I wonder how the Korean dad is going to feel when somebody explain  to him how totally unlikely it is that both those engines failed at exactly the same time.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  December 10th, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Strange, you wrote in your book that you finished high school in the ’70s.

  • 2. Bjorn Holmgaard  |  December 10th, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Actually the Swiss air controller was a dane – a stressed up air controller at that. The company he was working for had apperrently saved a few bucks om staffing while the automatic system was undergoing some sort of maintainance.
    Though I understand the chechen, it seemes to me that the controller was nothing more that an unfortunate scapegoat.

  • 3. Oleg  |  December 10th, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Hey War Nerd!
    You are hitting the nail on the head with this article. The only thing that isn’t correct is the part about “Chechen dad”. He wasn’t Chechen, in fact, he is Ossetian. Not much of the difference for you, but there is huge difference for me (I am Ossetian), or anyone living in Russia. Actually he is Christian, and he is out of the Swiss jail (if you can call that jail). He was greeted as a hero in Ossetia and given a goverment post. I hope his actions will make the Euro-fag air-traffic controllers think twice before they set Russian passenger jets on the crashing course next time.

  • 4. az  |  December 10th, 2008 at 11:26 am

    1) Twin engine failure in a configuration like the F18 has isn’t all that unlikely. For example a probable cause would be if a compressor blade broke in one engine and the debris struck the other one. To my knowledge the F18 has a pure FBW system and no backup generator, so a loss of power means loss of control, so there’s nothing the pilot could do.
    2) The air controller was the wrong dude to kill. As Bjorn already pointed out, the company was understaffed by a factor of four or so. Also, one of the pilots wrongfully chose to obey the ATC instead of the collision warning system.
    3) You got the christian stuff all wrong. Maybe you should actually take a look in the bible. There’s no fake hope in there, Jesus warns his followers of suffering and persecution. Also, there’s lots of war in it.

  • 5. P2O2  |  December 10th, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I’m sorry folks but I wrote harsh words just right after the news went on Internet air. I was real pissed off.

    See my post:
    US Top Gun Cowards!!!!!!! (UPDATED with Images)

    I think we saw an example of the same “culture” which we read about coming from Afghanistan – bombing weddings, soccer grounds, Afghan policemen, flock of sheep (sic!), or Canadian soldiers (USAF were doped with benny). “Skilled pilots are too dear (costly) to let themselves to be killed in such circumstances.”


  • 6. wengler  |  December 10th, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Actually that collision was a freak accident caused by Russian pilots ignoring their collision alarm and following the air controllers instructions while the pilots of the cargo plane trusted the collision alarm over that of the air controller. It was like one of those situations where both planes needed to go left or go right but they one went left and one went right making them go right into each other. That guy that shot the air traffic controller probably did him a favor with the kind of guilt he was carrying around.

    It’s kind of too early to tell whether this accident could’ve been avoided. It will probably be some variation of ‘yes..but’, though I am sure almost everyone’s interest is concluding that it was ‘pilot error’ instead of ‘massively expensive and ruinous equipment fuck-up’.

    If my family got killed in some freak occurrence and I had some deep connection with the master of the universe, I think my first thought would be something like, ‘what the fuck, you could’ve killed those good for nothing delinquents down the street’. I am a fervent believer in the old axiom “shit happens” however, so I doubt I would appeal to any massively cosmic melodrama to assuage my grief.

  • 7. oleg  |  December 10th, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Gary, don’t you know that Christian clergy had 2000 years of rehearsals to finesse their art of explaning things that can’t be explained? His preacher will do all right. “Our loving God loves your wife and kids even more than you do, and he just wanted to see them sitting beside him. So shut up, don’t question things and send us more money”. Something like that. And that poor Korean – whose brains are already deep fried enough for him to become a Christian and move to the USA – will eat this shit up like it’s a giant bowl of kimchi.

  • 8. Aenn  |  December 10th, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    There’re actually more problems with twin-engine fighters than single-engined.

    For starters, they eat more fuel.

    Then the construction suffers from “growing dead weight”: two engines weigh more, take up more space, this means more supporting structure, this means more weight, more space, more fuel expenditure, more fuel has to be carried, more weight, more structure…

    For a carrier-based plane, this is especially troubling as a carrier has finite supplies and a payload limit.

    In the end, everything boils down to engine reliability – a reliable single-engined plane (F-16) is likely to suffer less failures than a twin-engined plane built around less reliable engines (F/A-18). Crash stats should confirm that.

    Besides, it’s not necessary for the engines themselves to fail at the same time, could be something like a fuel system disruption, or some tiny controller breaking somewhere in a vital system (these planes are fly-by-wire, so surely there’s some obscure critical computer system that could be buggy).

    This is just technical speculation anyway, Gary’s assumption that the pilot was a reasoner-paranoid rookie just waiting for stress release seems more plausible.

  • 9. Harv  |  December 10th, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    a piece of shit russian tupolev crashed? there’s a fuckin surprise.
    fuck all of you.

  • 10. Delfosse  |  December 11th, 2008 at 1:06 am

    @ 8. Aenn
    Computer programs never fail in space shuttles, planes, etc. They are tested in a special way for literally every situation millions of times. The code is reviewed by hundreds of programmers. Etc etc etc.

  • 11. Aenn  |  December 11th, 2008 at 1:49 am

    Delfosse: correction – there’s little public accounting of such failures. Fail they must, all code is buggy. Or the routines are too restricted and rigid. One such case of rigidity is the Columbia crash, which was caused by a combination of wing structure destruction following a sequence of events caused by a jammed elevon. The shuttle construction has a weak spot – space between elevons and wings doesn’t have any thermal protection.
    The shuttle’s control programme assumed the elevon was in a “down” position when the jammed elevon finally was destroyed from overheating, then banked the craft by trying to compensate with the other wing’s elevon, exposing that elevon’s open space, and eventually gradually destroying wings and the spacecraft on re-entry by insane control commands. That’s just an example of how a rigid programme can destroy a spacecraft by encountering a situation it wasn’t designed to deal with. By the way, the shuttles don’t have manual control override, re-entry is completely computer-controlled.
    NASA, of course, blamed everything on the piece of foam detached during launch (which is ridiculous, the thing’s lightweight). And installed an electromechanical system to ensure elevons don’t get jammed on other shuttles.
    There was a smart Russian analysis on the sensor feeds and destruction sequence that described this. Point is, what the press gets fed, and what the public eats, in touchy events like this is almost always quite far from truth. As most Russians know pretty well, and as Gary knows.

    Anyway, as Az above commented,

    “1) Twin engine failure in a configuration like the F18 has isn’t all that unlikely. For example a probable cause would be if a compressor blade broke in one engine and the debris struck the other one. To my knowledge the F-18 has a pure FBW system and no backup generator, so a loss of power means loss of control, so there’s nothing the pilot could do.”

    So an FBW control system like F/A-18’s is helpless when both engines get knocked out (also likely if, say, a bird gets caught in the intake, gets cut, and jams both engines). Power loss is the ultimate “bug” in this case. FBW, in case you don’t know, is “fly-by-wire”, electronic control system of an otherwise aerodynamically unstable plane. A plane with no electro/servo-mechanical control is controlled by a computer which checks all flight parameters at a certain frequency and changes the plane’s aerodynamics according to its control programme. Without the FBW system online, a plane relying on FBW is a rather unstable flying brick with engines (and armament, fuel, etc.).

  • 12. Strelnikov  |  December 11th, 2008 at 2:45 am

    One of the big issues about airfields (military and civilian) in San Diego County is that 90% of them are totally boxed in with houses or businesses on all sides; the F/A-18 pilot had to fly over two densely-populated towns (La Jolla and University City) before he could see the runway, though MCAS Miramar’s radar would have picked him up when he was still over the ocean. If he was coming in at a roughly west-east direction (remember he was flying from a carrier) and he suffered “engine failure” there is no reason why the guy could not have guided the crippled bird into MCAS airspace for a belly landing (with the pilot ejecting a couple seconds before the plane hits the ground) or a least an off-the-runway ejection and nose-down crash. The plane slammed into the house about two miles from the west end of the base…I could buy that the pilot bailed out because he was doing “touch and go” exercises (landing for a second, then taking off) and he was flying out to circle back when the engines died, all restart attempts failed, and the pilot was forced to pull the yellow handle, BUT all the descriptions about this event tell me that that this was a simple ferrying flight from point A to point B screwed up by operator error. BTW, “training” missions of this type are done every few months; it gives newer pilots a chance to get used to the plane and older pilots a change to get more flight time on their log books and draw flight pay. Meanwhile the plane is either being repaired at the destination, being transferred to another squadron (older planes wind up as “advanced trainers”), being upgraded, or mothballed. I’m guessing it was a noncritical repair job they could not do on ship, so they sent the plane to Miramar but it didn’t make it.

  • 13. Delfosse  |  December 11th, 2008 at 4:00 am

    @ 11. Aenn
    Obviously we misunderstood each other. I was talking about programs, not about a hardware fail. If a program isn’t designed to handle a situation (or gets WRONG input from a wing in our case), it’s not really buggy, it’s just not supposed to deal with it. And from your explanations, this was exactly the case in Columbia crash.

    Anyway, programs usually can’t do much when it comes to hardware problems. For example, when your computer is cut off from electricity, your pc has about 1-2 seconds to react, there’s an urgent top priority interruption saying “no power, save everything you can”. Doesn’t save much though.

  • 14. JParker  |  December 11th, 2008 at 6:22 am

    You have mentioned before about general fanatical behavior in Koreans. Christians in particular this kind of “radical” forgiveness behavior is just someone taking their Christianity seriously.

    I see a mission to Afghanistan and a slow painful martyrdom in this guys future. The way he won’t stop smiling is going to totally piss off whoever is doing the killing.

  • 15. slkjfsldkfj  |  December 11th, 2008 at 7:07 am

    I’m surprised it was a guy. The air force is such a bunch of PC bedwetters most of the “bomb-the-wedding-from-300,000 ft.” heroes are chicks.

  • 16. autoblinda  |  December 11th, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    i live in south korea (italian american new yorker )and Koreans are really like that,they are tough and good people and have a deep meaning of Han.They are also patriots and not jaded like our post 1960s population has become in the west…

  • 17. Jacob  |  December 11th, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Bjorn Holmgaard,

    Your interpretation of the events is a little of the mark. That night there were supposed to be two traffic controllers on duty. Apparently one of them left to take a nap in a nearby room while his friend stayed to man both workstations. Needless to say, the situation spun out of control and the idiot set two planes on a collision course. Once he realized the planes were on a collision course, he ordered the Russian crew to descend, against the internationally adopted conventions. According to that convention, the Russian plane was supposed to climb in that situation, and in fact the Russian crew saw they were on a collission course on their own and were preparing to climb until the idiot traffic controller told them to descend.

  • 18. Yul Brynner  |  December 11th, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Actualy the piece you linked to about the air controller says he was repeatedely stabbed to death rather than blown away. Suddenly it does not sound as romantic, does it? Probably because we are pussies. A pistol or a knife should not technicaly matter and it does not to a Chechen or Ossetian or whatever mountain son of a bitch he was.

    We on the other hand don`t mind far greater killing, but please keep it sanitary. Inconsisent, hypocritical, phonily moralistic pussies. It is a hard job being civilised, but I guess somebody`s got to do that too.

  • 19. P2O2  |  December 12th, 2008 at 4:57 am

    Marines: Pilot followed procedure before crash

    “The pilot of a USMC F/A-18D that crashed in San Diego *****was following standard procedures*****, Marine generals told Congress on Thursday.

    When asked why the jet was not diverted to North Island where the approach was over water, the USMC responded that a *****twin engine failure of the jet was rare***** and pilots have landed in Miramar with one engine.

    That’s why I wrote the pilot was a m***er who should die with his bird.


  • 20. FkD  |  December 12th, 2008 at 9:21 am

    I thought one of the selling points behind the (suspect) selling of F-35’s to Norway, rather than Gripen NG, was that F-35 has twin engines …
    Are the Norwegians ever gonna pay for that …

  • 21. Bulgoki  |  December 12th, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Koreans have to atone for that madman at Virginia Tech. Four gone, big deal. Another 20+ to go.

  • 22. Frank  |  December 13th, 2008 at 9:02 am

    FkD @20
    Both the F-35 and the Gripen are single engined aircrafts. But it’s certainly true that you Norwegians have bought a big unknown. The F-35 is probably much more expensive to own and service, than the good old F-16.

  • 23. dot  |  December 13th, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Almost all non-combat military flights are “training flights.” Is the writer not aware that military pilots train all the time? That being on a “training flight” does not necessarily mean one is a “rookie?”

  • 24. Ivan  |  December 14th, 2008 at 3:08 am

    It was not chechen, the guy that killed swiss air dispatcher is ossetian

  • 25. m  |  December 18th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    while I agree with the Gary that the Korean is way too hasty to forgive the pilot, he’s completely wrong to salute this Chechen guy, (or Ossetian, or really who cares?). Based on what I have read about him, he essentially views himself as the “world’s biggest victim”. Yea, he lost his family, but it’s not as if that hasn’t ever happened in the history of mankind. There is nothing “cool” or badass about the way he handled his loss. It’s not like he showed up at the guy’s doorstep and said, “your lazy stupidity killed my family. Prepare to die you scumbag!” and then proceeded to blow him away with a double barrel shotgun. Even if wrong, that would be kind of respectable. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he meekly showed up at his doorstep with a tiny knife and some pictures of his family. He “diplomatically” wanted to be invited in to “discuss” the matter with the ATC (he wanted an apology). Understandably (if stupidly) the Swiss guy got annoyed that this guy would show up on his doorstep this way. They got into an argument, and this Causcous loon shoved the pictures in Mr. ATC’s face, who swatted them away and they “fluttered to the ground like they did from the plane”. This was too much for Mr. Emo victim, so he took out a knife and killed the ATC, albeit not in a cool way like through the eyeball or throat. He just kinda meekly stabbed him and ran, letting him bleed to death.

    To make matters worse, rather than own up to what he did, this murdering sh*t went back to his hotel and “forgot” what happened. This eventually helped him get off on an “insanity” plea, and shipped back to his hometown where he was treated as a hero and given a plush job. All while he cries his days away lamenting the loss of his poor family. Somebody needs to tell this dolt that accidents happen, and that doesn’t entitle you to “revenge”. Even if it did, there are other people involved than one guilt laden, overworked ATC. The pilots of the Russian plane were the biggest f*ck ups, but they died. But there is so much more to this accident. You could go after those who failed to train the pilots to listen to TCAS over the ATC. You could go after the TCAS manufacturers themselves for failing to consider this kind of situation. You could go after the Swiss ATC company for cutting back personnel, or the other guy (or woman?) on duty who was sleeping on the job. But this would all be too much for Mr. pea brain crybaby mountain dolt to understand.

    Let’s not forget too, that he was not some poor working guy, but a successful architect who was designing some rich guys home in Barcelona. That’s why his family was on the plane to come see him. This guy is not some down trodden warrior, but an entitled, pampered victim who thinks he should be immune to tragedy. Were I one of the kids of this Swiss ATC, I’d make it my life’s mission to hunt him down and torture his sorry ass to death. Of course, the Swiss are pvssies, so this won’t happen, sadly. Hopefully instead he will merely whine the rest of his pathetic life away and burn in the same hell that spawned him.

  • 26. Gibberwocky  |  February 6th, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I carefully read all of the replies to this story (article, blog, thing) looking for the one intelligent comment, and was pleasantly surprised to find two or three.
    But the one question I did not see asked: are any of you “kill the pilot” whackjobs an F/A18 pilot?
    If not, then just like me, you really have no idea what you are talking about.
    Have you ever been piloting a twin engine plane and lost both engines?
    If not, then just like me, you really have no idea what you are talking about.

    By the way, the reason the F/A18 is FBW is not because it’s unstable, it’s because it saves weight; no bulky hydraulic systems to move the flight surfaces.

  • 27. Gibberwocky  |  February 6th, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    by the way, I should point out that my father is a former Naval aviator, aeronautical engineer. I grew up around airplanes; the only reason I don’t fly is that I’m not careful enough to be an old pilot.

  • 28. aleke  |  March 3rd, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Deadly Fighter Crash ‘Clearly Avoidable’ ABC News – ‎1 hour ago‎

    By LUIS MARTINEZ The crash of a Marine fighter jet in San Diego that killed four people was “clearly avoidable” if the pilot and officers on the ground assisting him during the emergency had followed proper procedures, a Marine general said today.

    Jet crash caused by poor maintenance, errors, Marine investigation … Los Angeles Times

    San Diego jet crash ‘avoidable’ BBC News

    score another one for the Exile

  • 29. H.D. Price  |  March 23rd, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    The same sort of thing happened to an apartment complex I was living at in 1978. It was across the street from McChord AFB in Tacoma, Washington. One Saturday morning my slumber is disturbed by this huge banging noise that I at first thought was some drunken asshole hitting a car (which I feared was mine) but when I look out a window one of the other buildings is on fire and people are jumping out of back windows (each building was only two stories high). Turns out an F-106 had “flamed out” (engine failure, or so they said) on take off and this stout-hearted pilot ejected letting the airplane come down where it may. He and his seat and parachute landed in the middle of the intersection at the corner where the apartments were located. Unfortunately no tractor-trailer rig was speeding through the intersection to give this chicken-shit his just reward. The plane missed buildings because it hit the tops of fir trees, the re-directed it’s path from occupied residences to a pond and mud from recent rains. No one was killed, but there was a shit load of fire damage.

    Reading of the F-18 incident, I was reminded of the Robert Duvall movie “The Great Santini”, where he is a marine pilot. At the end of the movie his F-4 Phantom is having engine trouble, and he stays with the plane and directs it out to sea rather than eject and leave it to fall on people’s homes. I guess that just happens in the movies.

  • 30. GS test  |  March 31st, 2013 at 8:25 am

    War Nerd Blog: Darko Takes Bad Bounce in Miramar – By Gary Brecher – The eXiled

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