A military jet crash that killed four civilians in University City last fall was a preventable accident caused by mechanical problems and a series of poor decisions, Marine Corps officials said today.
The pilot of the disabled F/A-18D Hornet that went down near Nobel Drive and Interstate 805 on Dec. 8 should have made an emergency landing at Naval Air Station North Island, which was closer and involved an approach over water, USMC authorities said during a briefing this afternoon.
Instead, Lt. Dan Neubauer was attempting, with approvals from supervising officers, to reach Marine Corps Air Station Miramar when the fighter jet's second engine went out about three miles west of the air base.
Killed in the 11:59 a.m. crash were Young Mi Yoon, 36; her daughters, 15-month-old Grace and 7-week-old Rachel; and Yoon's 60-year-old mother, Seokim Kim.
Neubauer, 28, safely parachuted into the residential area just east of La Jolla.
The fiery crash destroyed the Yoons' rented Cather Avenue house along with a next-door residence that was unoccupied at the time.
Audiotapes of air-traffic radio transmissions released by the Federal Aviation Administration this morning revealed that Neubauer was repeatedly offered the option of landing at North Island, which is surrounded to the north, west and south by San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to making a faulty decision to head to Miramar, the pilot and his supervising officers -- four of whom were relieved of their duties over the accident -- violated various other emergency procedures after one of the aircraft's engines went out during a training flight over the ocean, officials said.
"Ultimately this tragic accident was avoidable through human factors," Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles told reporters.
Neubauer made his first radio transmission about the equipment failure about 11:30 a.m., shortly after taking off from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.
At the time, he radioed that he was about 13,000 feet above the ocean, some 20 miles south of Coronado.
"I've got, uh, down to (a) single engine ... possibly a problem with the other engine, and time, uh, fuel remaining about, uh, 20 to 30 minutes," the lieutenant advised.
A controller then asked him where he wanted to land, apparently assuming that Neubauer intended to go to North Island.
"I'm actually going to try to take it to Miramar, if possible," the pilot responded.
To that statement, the controller replied, "OK, just let me know what you want to do."
After getting direction on what heading to take, Neubauer radioed, "Thank you, and I'm coordinating with ... some people on the ground to try and figure out what we're doing."
Neubauer's and his commanders' failure to follow proper procedures exacerbated the crisis and ultimately caused the jet's second engine to lose its fuel supply, a likelihood that "was not recognized the pilot or by squadron supervisory personnel," said Col. John Rupp, operations officer of the 3rd Marine Air Wing.
"These malfunctions in combination presented the pilot with a complex emergency that was compounded by a series of well-intentioned but incorrect decisions, both inside the cockpit and in the squadron's ready room," Rupp told news crews.