Pilot error caused a training jet with three aboard to crash and explode in a farm field near Harrington, Wash., a year ago, the U.S. Navy said.
A detailed review of the accident, released Tuesday, found mechanical failure was not involved in the crash last March 11 of the Navy EA-6B Prowler, based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
The crash killed pilot Lt. j.g. Valerie Cappelaere Delaney, 26, from Ellicott City, Md.; Lt. j.g. William Brown McIlvaine III, 24, of El Paso, Texas; and Lt. Cmdr. Alan A. Patterson, 34, from Tullahoma, Tenn.
Whidbey Island is home to the Navy’s tactical electronic warfare squadrons.
The plane was on a routine training flight. Whidbey Island-based Navy and Marine crews typically fly at low altitudes over Eastern Washington.
Area residents reported hearing a loud boom followed by a thick, black cloud from the area of the crash.
Navy officials spent the past year reviewing training records along with statements by the crew of a Navy jet that accompanied the Prowler.
Among several findings, the Navy review concluded the flight’s instructor, Patterson, had been placed into “accelerated” training and that the other two flight officers were not fully prepared for the challenging mission they were flying.
The report reads, “The normally sufficient risk controls that did exist for this flight were undermined in three specific circumstances:
• The unnecessarily accelerated training of Lt. Patterson and his assignment as an instructor in this event.
• The failure to recognize and/or act on the marginal capability demonstrated by Lt. Delaney in the low-altitude environment.
• As stated in the investigation, all three aviators were technically qualified for the event. However when this crew was placed together in the low-altitude regime, their combined proficiency left them little margin for error.”
In another section, reviewers noted that Delaney was following a lead aircraft while making low-level turns, as part of the training mission.
In the front cockpit, Delaney sat alongside Patterson, with McIlvaine seated in one of the two back cockpit seats.
“The pilot had made three aircraft turns/maneuvers during the mishap flight prior to the fourth, fatal turn” which started at 1,000 feet of altitude, the report said. At that point, she was following the lead aircraft, which was flying at 800 feet.
During the last turn, the lead pilot said he lost sight of the Prowler, then turned back and saw the plane head nose down into the field, exploding on impact.
The Navy report noted that the Whidbey Island training program had conducted jet training flights for the previous 40 years without a crash. It added, however, that “low-altitude formation flying is a hazardous mission and is among the higher-risk events” Prowler crews encounter.
Released by the Naval Air Force, Pacific headquarters in San Diego, the full report detailing the crash and the Navy’s suggested response covers 391 pages.
Among the recommendations is for Whidbey Island commanders to strengthen training reviews to minimize the risks involved in such missions.