A dark scar marks a farm field at the site of an EA-6B Prowler crash last March. All three crew members onboard died. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review via AP)
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Pilot error, exacerbated by a possible lack of aircrew training, lead to a jet crash last year in eastern Washington that killed all three on board, according to a Navy report into one of the service’s worst aviation mishaps in 2013.
The instructor and pilot aboard the Whidbey Island-based EA-6B Prowler were not optimally trained for the complicated low-flying training mission they attempted, an investigation by Naval Air Force Pacific concluded.
“There were gaps in leadership, oversight and a singular mission focus that contributed to placing this crew in a situation that they were technically qualified for but which exceeded their combined proficiency on the morning of 11 March 2013,” Capt. John Springett, former Electronic Attack Wing commander, wrote in the report, obtained by Navy Times a year after the mishap.
The crash claimed the lives of Electronic Attack Squadron 129 flight instructor Lt. Cmdr. Alan Patterson, 34; pilot Lt. j.g Valerie Delaney, 26; and flight officer Lt. j.g. William McIlvaine, 24.
According to the report, Patterson had used his “close working relationship” with his commanding officer to speed up his training, “bypassing critical review procedures that are designed to ensure all training requirements were sufficiently achieved.”
This created a situation in which the relatively inexperienced, though qualified, pilot was not under the best supervision for the dangerous low altitude formation flying. The report described Delaney, the pilot under instruction, as a “conscientious and hard working student” but noted that her previous attempts at low altitude training were sub-par.
“An examination of the comments on her gradesheets reveals significant weaknesses that should have been sufficient to halt her training,” the investigator wrote.
Though the flight schedule was properly drawn up based on the crew’s technical qualifications, the report said, there were indications of a greater-than-average risk in this mission. The chain of command could have scheduled a more experienced instructor to lead the flight, or slowed down Delaney’s coursework to beef up her training for low-flying missions, the report found.
“The substandard proficiency and syllabus compliance ... resulted in a crew pairing that lacked optimal proficiency for the dynamic nature of the mishap flight,” wrote Vice Adm. David Buss, head of Naval Air Force Pacific, in his letter endorsing the report.
Following the investigation, VAQ-129, a fleet replenishment squadron that trains Prowler and EA-18G Growler aviators, is working on a more detailed performance review, to prevent instructors like Patterson from accelerating their training without proper oversight.
Springett also pointed out that the shift from Prowlers to EA-18G Growlers had caused cutbacks in the Prowler program, although aviators are still training on the older jet.
“The smaller EA-6B student loading has not affected the overall capability of the squadron to safely and effectively train naval aviators,” he wrote. “However, the gradual reduction in size of the EA-6B training effort is changing the apparent pressure to complete each individual student.”
Shifting resources away from Prowler training has potentially led students and instructors to believe that leadership doesn’t support the program or that it doesn’t take the risks as seriously, he wrote.
The report pointed out this was the first deadly crash in the Electronic Attack Weapons School’s 40-year history.