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Pilot Error Is Blamed for Crash at Air Show

Navy says inexperience was a factor in the accident that led to the deaths of two airmen at the Point Mugu event last year.

March 13, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Navy investigators blamed pilot error on the flaming crash of a jet fighter at last year's Point Mugu Air Show, concluding that inexperience and adrenaline caused Navy Cmdr. Michael Norman to inadvertently stall the plane.

The April 20 crash of the QF-4 Phantom killed Norman, 39, and his navigator, Marine Capt. Andrew Muhs, 31, before 25,000 spectators at the annual aeronautics display.

Findings from a nine-month investigation are included in a 3-inch-thick report the Navy released Wednesday. They include interviews with dozens of pilots, mechanics and experts in aeronautics.

Investigators also reviewed photographs and footage of the crash captured on videotape by dozens of spectators. After sifting through the evidence, investigators flatly rejected the possibility of a mechanical malfunction in the 34-year-old aircraft.

"No evidence of any kind could be found which showed any maintenance-related actions contributed to this mishap," the report found.

That disputes the contention of two former Navy aircraft mechanics who came forward after the crash to say they resigned from the jet fighter's maintenance program because it was plagued with problems.

Capt. Mike Rabens, commander of the Naval Test Wing Pacific that oversaw the squadron, said the Navy report should put to rest any lingering concern about the plane's safety.

"The tragedy is now part of us. We won't forget it but we must now move on," Rabens said Wednesday.

"The investigation was thorough, painstaking and got to the cause of the mishap," he said.

The crash occurred as Norman and Muhs were completing a flyover performance along with three other fighter aircraft -- two F14 Tomcats and another QF-4.

Flying in diamond formation, the jets thundered into a hard right turn at 675 feet above ground as they prepared to land. Norman, in the left-wing position, pulled back too hard on the throttle, causing the jet's nose to pitch higher than it should have, the report stated.

The aircraft skidded slightly and began to wobble, leading investigators to believe Norman had pulled back on the stick a second time, essentially stalling the plane.

Norman and Muhs ejected at 150 feet above ground as the plane rolled first right and then left, the report found. Ejecting at that altitude is "not survivable," the report found, and both died of blunt-force trauma.

The plane dived into a marshy area just west of the Point Mugu base. No spectators were injured.

A heavy fuel load may have also factored into the crash, investigators said. The plane was 4,000 pounds heavier than it had been when Norman performed the maneuver flawlessly during practice.

That may have changed the aircraft's center of gravity, but there was no discussion among the pilots about that before the turn, investigators said.

During briefings before the flyover, the fliers were cautioned to not let the pressure of putting on a good show overshadow safety, the report said. One finding suggested the initial hard pull of the throttle may have been an attempt by Norman to execute a clean, sharp turn.

But it may have been too hard in the excitement of the moment. The report says Norman may have been so focused on keeping in formation that he did not notice his airspeed had dropped dangerously.

There were no flight or voice recorders on the jet, so it is unclear whether Muhs had tried to alert Norman to the danger.

"Given the very short time [before the plane crashed] either the [navigator] made no calls to the pilot or the pilot disregarded the calls," the report said.

Norman was a jet-fighter instructor with 3,309 military flight hours. But he had just 79 flight hours in the QF-4 Phantom, the report said.

The Naval Weapons Test Squadron now requires that a pilot have at least 200 hours of fighter-jet experience to fly a QF-4, which is used for weapons testing.

In the report, Rabens concedes that Norman was "not the most seasoned or experienced fleet tactical aviator." Nonetheless, he was allowed to perform the fly-by because Rabens judged the pilot's maturity, experience as a commercial jetliner pilot and military flight hours were "more than adequate."

The maneuvers at the show were considered basic and non-demanding.

Norman's peers had mixed feelings about his flying ability. Some pilots described him as careful and meticulous and said he was "living his dream of being a jet pilot."

But others said his knowledge of the plane was greater than his ability to fly it. Norman had a "rough stick," one pilot told investigators.

Another naval flight officer said he was uncomfortable flying with him after an opening day flyover at Dodger Stadium shortly before the Point Mugu Air Show. "He believed Norman had come close to stalling the aircraft and nearly had a mid-air collision," the report said.

Rabens disputed that account in the report, saying Norman performed the event without incident. Norman's widow, Sylvia Norman, declined to comment on the report's findings. Muhs' widow could not be reached.

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Staff writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.

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