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VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — Audio recordings from the April 2012 crash of a malfunctioning F/A-18D Hornet reveal the calm, controlled response of a team of air traffic controllers amid the maelstrom of a $29 million fighter jet bursting into flames as it crashed into an apartment complex.
More than four hours of audio recordings were obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act. The audio captures the response of a team of young and veteran air traffic controllers inside the glass-enclosed control tower seven stories above Oceana Naval Air Station.
Dozens of apartment units were destroyed when the Hornet careened into the Mayfair Mews apartment complex, but no one died in what the mayor called a “good Friday miracle.” Both pilots ejected before impact and survived.
The audio includes the voice of 22-year-old air traffic controller James Nairn uttering a mild obscenity as the jet lost altitude but otherwise a crew operating calmly under extreme pressure.
“Hey, dash-two just had a huge flame come out the back of his engine,” said Nairn, a petty officer 2nd class.
“Hey, he’s losing altitude,” radioed Nairn as the plane disappeared behind trees that buffer the airfield from the city.
Seconds ticked by before they saw an ejection seat and parachute burst above the treeline. The blast caused by the crash was so powerful it rattled the control tower’s windows.
Then, an eerie silence.
The flight data controller turned to Mark McDaniel, the local controller that day. “Should I ring the crash phone?” he asked.
McDaniel, a retired chief petty officer with nearly 25 years of air traffic controlling experience, gazed toward a plume of smoke. He nodded slowly before choking out a response: “Yes.”
The single word sprung everyone back into action.
Nairn got on the radio with a jet that had taken off 10 seconds before the downed aircraft.
“Three Seven, Oceana Tower. Where’s your wingman, sir?”
The pilot circled back around and described the view from above.
“Tower, make sure you got the local fire trucks coming,” the pilot said. “It’s a pretty big fire right now.”
Several minutes passed before the tower was able to confirm that both aviators had ejected before impact.
McDaniel coordinated with a Virginia Beach Police helicopter. The chopper pilot confirmed that both aviators were safe.
McDaniel then asked the question that had been gnawing at him. “Where did they land the aircraft?”
He waited 12 minutes and 46 seconds for a definitive response.
“It looks like the damage is a very large apartment building,” the police helicopter pilot said. “We don’t know of any injuries, yet.”
A few tower personnel wiped away tears, and a moment later a backup crew reported to relieve them. That’s standard protocol after a traumatic event. The Navy trains its air traffic controllers to keep their emotions in check, but even the best are still human.
As firefighters hustled to contain the inferno raging a couple of miles away, the controllers who had coordinated the initial response were herded into a conference room and asked to write statements.
McDaniel wondered how many people might have been seriously hurt or even killed.
An entire day would pass before he learned that the answer was none.
An investigative report concluded that a rare dual-engine failure caused the jet to crash.
The crash destroyed 27 apartments, displaced dozens and injured seven.
The Navy said the jet’s two-man crew ejected at the last second possible to survive, 50 feet above the ground. The entire flight lasted 70 seconds and the plane’s peak altitude was 425 feet.