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A Super Hornet's Nest

War veteran Richard Webb stirred up trouble when he buzzed an airport. The reaction shows how much times have changed.

October 19, 2005|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

SAN LUIS OBISPO — At a quarter past noon on Jan. 21, a U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter flown by a combat-tested pilot named Richard Webb appeared over the Edna Valley and streaked toward San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

On its first pass, the Super Hornet screamed along at more than 650 miles an hour, just 96 feet above the main runway. Soon it circled back, touched down on the tarmac for an instant, then went into a steep climb, afterburner roaring, and disappeared in the skies.

Blake Medeiros, a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who fuels planes at the airport, was in his employer's office when he heard the jet. He ran outside and clambered atop a 15,000-gallon fuel tank to watch. He had seen such displays of aerial might at air shows. But for such a sight to appear out of nowhere during his workday was awe-inspiring.

Ernie Sebby was in his house less than a mile from the airport. He ran to the front porch and caught a glimpse of the aircraft. It appeared to be painted in gray primer. He could make out no identifying numbers.

A former volunteer at airport community functions and an erstwhile recreational pilot, the 77-year-old retired corrections officer guessed that the plane was a surplus military jet fighter flown "by some guy that's got more money than brains."

Sebby immediately recalled an incident in Sacramento in September 1972, when an inexperienced civilian pilot crashed a decommissioned Korean War-era F-86 Sabre jet into an ice cream parlor, killing 12 children and 10 adults.

Martin Pehl was in the washroom of the airport's administrative offices near the terminal. For a moment, Pehl, the airport's assistant manager, thought that he was feeling an earthquake.

Then he and nearly everyone else bailed out of the building to see what was happening. He saw the jet fighter's afterburner afire as the aircraft climbed into the sky.

The Federal Aviation Administration designation for the airspace above the airport is Class D, meaning that it has a speed limit of 230 mph below 2,500 feet. "Oh boy, we're in trouble," Pehl thought. "We've got a real PR issue.... "


Like the turbulent wake of a jet, the incident's impact spread outward, with severe consequences for Webb's aviation career.

George "Bud" Day, a Vietnam-era combat fighter pilot and Medal of Honor winner, recalled a time when military aviators were entitled to occasional displays of thrilling bravado.

"Back in the old days, I used to fly by my house on the way back from an exercise and give a little toot on the afterburner just so my wife would know I was on the way home," he said.

Webb's case, however, demonstrates how far fighter pilot culture has evolved.

An important factor is the greater cost and sophistication of today's jet fighters. Although the Super Hornet's cost is often cited in the media as about $60 million apiece, Department of Defense figures collected by the authoritative defense policy group place it at about $95 million, when development costs are included and the price is calculated in current dollars.

"The weapons systems today are so complex from an engineering and science point of view that the old idea of who a fighter pilot is has changed," said John Sherwood, a historian for the Navy.

"Right now the ones who make it are perfect physical specimens, and they tend to be engineers, people with a strong math and science background. In the Vietnam War you would still get a lot of people who'd played football and were jocks and brave guys who were willing to risk their lives to fly very unsafe aircraft off of very unsafe ships. But that's changing."

Along with the changes in the aircraft, several highly publicized accidents and the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which numerous Navy fliers were disciplined for wild drunkenness and overt sexual harassment, have helped shift the culture, as has the emergence of female fighter pilots, Sherwood said.

Darrel Whitcomb, an aviation historian and retired Air Force colonel who flew jet fighters for two decades, including three tours of combat duty in Vietnam, said current standards reflect "a new level of maturity. The level of professionalism has gotten progressively higher."

In today's environment, Sherwood said, there is little tolerance "for misbehavior in any way, whether it's flying an aircraft outside the flight plan or having a few beers in the officers' club."

The Navy tradition, he said, is to give a ship's captain or aircraft pilot a great deal of responsibility and autonomy, but to countenance not even the smallest mistake. The Navy "has a reputation for eating its children.... If you mess up, there are no second chances."


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