Monday, April 23, 2007

Tragedy at Beaufort

Mrs. Spook and Your Humble Correspondent made a trip to South Carolina over the weekend, one of those semi-annual pilgrimages to visit relatives. The weather was absolutely delightful; lots of sunshine and temperatures in the upper 70s, another reminder why the Palmetto State is one of my adopted homes.

With a little free time on Saturday, I briefly debated a trip to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina, which was holding its annual air show. From my location, the air station was only a two-hour drive, giving me enough time to get down there and catch some of the demonstrations. Despite spending much of my adult life around high-performance, there's still something thrilling about seeing a jet fighter put through its paces.

In the end, Mrs. Spook came up with an alternate plan, and it was just as well. As you know, Saturday's performances at Beaufort ended tragically, when a member of the Navy's Blue Angels died in a crash. Navy Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis of Pittsfield, MA, was in his second year as a member of the team. The Blue Angels were performing their final maneuver of Saturday's demonstration when Smith's F/A-18 Hornet failed to join the last formation. Moments later, his jet crashed into a residential area near the base.

The Navy has convened a board of inquiry to investigate the crash--standard procedure in any accident of this type. It could take up to a year for the board to complete its work and determine the cause of the mishap. Early speculation is focusing on G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) as a potential reason; others have suggested that Davis' jet hit a bird just before it went down, causing it to lose power at low altitude, and leaving the pilot unable to recover.

G-LOC is almost always identified as a possible culprit in any Blue Angels' crash, because the team's pilots don't wear G-suits. Worn over flight suits, the G-suits inflate during hard maneuvering, to help keep blood in the brain--and prevent the pilot from blacking out. The Blue Angels have resisted wearing G-suits, claiming that when the devices inflate, they could cause the pilot to bump the control stick, potentially disastrous when jets are flying just inches apart.

I am not a former pilot, so my expertise in these matters is limited. However, I'm a bit leery about the G-LOC theory, at least for now. Blue Angels pilots are superbly conditioned, and well acquainted with the G loads they'll face at various points in the program. All fighter pilots are vulnerable to G-LOC (even with G-suits), and various physiological factors can increase the risk. But Commander Davis had been through this routine many times before, and the maneuver in question--from what I've been told--didn't carry a particularly high G-load.

On the other hand, a bird strike at low altitude can be a catastrophic event, particularly if the jet ingests multiple birds, or a bird large enough to disable both engines. Years ago, I lost a friend (an F-4 driver) whose jet struck multiple birds along a low-level route to a training range. Both engines were destroyed in seconds (in jet engines, birds hitting turbine blades trigger a nasty chain reaction that often results in the loss of the entire power plant, and sometimes, a fire). My friend did everything right; he pulled back on the control stick, gained altitude and bailed out. His weapons system officer (WSO) in back made it out safely; unfortunately, there was some sort of malfunction with my friends ejection seat, and he died in the attempt.

For Commander Davis, a low altitude bailout at Beaufort would have been even more problematic. Bailing out over a residential area would increase the chances that his jet might strike a home, and kill people on the ground. I'm guessing--and this is sheer speculation on my part--that Davis elected to stay with his stricken jet, trying to steer it away from the houses below. In that effort, he was largely successful. There was some damage (and minor injuries) on the ground, but the outcome could have been much, much worse.

Friends in Davis' hometown of Pittsfield, MA described him as a man with a life-long interest in aviation. He was fascinated with airplanes from the time he was little," former neighbor Betty Sweeney said. "He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. That's the only relief, that he went doing what he wanted to do."

Davis was a former F-14 pilot and graduate of the Navy's "Top Gun" program in 2004. Prayers to his family, friends, and squadron mates.


Reporter Stacy Davis of WTKR-TV in Norfolk recently flew with Davis when the Blue Angels visited the Hampton Roads area. Portions of her interview with Lieutenant Commander Davis--and her orientation flight--can be found on the station's website. The segment conveys a similar impression of Davis. He was a skilled professional, doing what he loved.


Anonymous said...

This was a really unfortunate accident. When our scarce and valued pilots are operating hi-performance military aircraft in demos, someone should be insisting on using all available safety gear. You only have to look at the video of Mig-29 pilot Anatoly Kvochur ejecting at 75' (he was uninjured) to see how pilots can walk away from almost any disaster if they prepare for it. You can see the video at:

If they don't want to use the safety gear, including low-altitude ejection seats, they should be confined to low-performance aircraft. An accident like this is such a waste. Just my 2 cents worth.

Mr. Pulsey said...

I was fortunate enough to have met Davis as he was preparing to take Harrison Ford for a ride in Blue Angel #7 att AirVenture the year before he was killed.

About the G-suits. To maintain leverage on the control stick they rest their arms on their thighs. (Blue Angel F/A-18's also have a torsion-spring connecting the stick to the panel for 'positive' force.) The G-suit wraps around their thighs and abdomen and inflates and deflates with air as G loads vary. You can imagine, this would change the placement of the pilot's elbow by quite a large degree in relative terms. Seeing as how the Blues fly their manuevers in close formation, their leverage point would change during a formation loop for example. The G loads at the top of the loop are quite low, then steadily increase as the formation comes down the backside and bottoms out. It would be difficult to fly with the precision needed.

I think by now they have determined GLOC to be the culprit. I have also heard that he may not have lost total consciousness. But rather was 'impaired'. I can buy this, although Davis was a very experienced pilot. All it would take is being a little late on the rejoin, bump up the speed a little bit to adjust, more speed means more G-exposure on the pull, so on so forth.

Funny thing about aviation. It seems that virtually all safety equipment has certain drawbacks. Something as simple as a parachute. A parachute will save your life, but there are times when it can be a liability and cause an accident. I guess it's a matter of risk management. In my opinion, the Blues have shown the G-suits are not a huge factor. Of the 21 accidents the Blues have had, over their 63 year history, this is the first one to have been caused by GLOC. The Thunderbirds have had 15 accidents in their 56 years and they wear G-suits because the F-16's stick is side-mounted.