Questions Linger After Deadly Jet Crash

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Nearly two weeks after a military jet killed four people when it slammed into a San Diego neighborhood, questions linger about the decision to direct the hobbled fighter over homes to an inland airfield when a nearby base offered a route across open water.

Young Mi Yoon, 36; her daughters Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months; and mother-in-law, Suk Im Kim, 60; were killed by a fighter jet that lost power and by chance crashed through their home and burst into flames. Two homes were destroyed in the crash, and several others were damage.
The cause of the fiery Dec. 8 crash in which the pilot ejected safely is being investigated. Military officials have depicted a freakish turn of events in which one and then both engines failed on the F/A18D Hornet during a training run that started on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean.
That hasn't dampened speculation among some that tragedy might have been averted.
The base where the ailing jet was headed, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by thickly packed residential areas that include a high school. Less than 10 miles away the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado sits at the tip of a peninsula, where the flight path from the south faces San Diego Bay.
The crash incinerated two homes, damaged three others and killed four members of a single family.
"Why not go to North Island?" asked Louis Rodolico, who lives near the sprawling Miramar base and fears the investigation will sidestep the decision-making behind the pilot's route.
"All we're saying is when you have a damaged aircraft, don't bring it over a populated zone, especially when you have a world of options," Rodolico said.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Rick Ramirez, who lives near Miramar, said at a community forum last week that the jet could have easily flown to North Island, but it would have been an inconvenience for Marine maintenance crews to retrieve the aircraft.
Marine Corps generals have defended the choice to send the jet from the ocean over the University City neighborhood toward Miramar.
Military officials said that after the first engine faltered, Miramar was a straight shot and that going toward Coronado would have required more engine thrust. The fighters can fly with one engine, and dual engine failures are rare.
But if a jet can fly safely on one engine, how much consideration was given to sending the pilot to North Island, a location that presumably lessened the risk to the public if the second engine shut down? And was a runway available?
The amount of fuel on the jet, weather, the pilot's experience and the capability of the jet to fly with malfunctioning equipment would all be factors in determining where to go in a flight emergency.
But a paucity of information has made it difficult to assess the call made that day.
Nothing has been disclosed about where and when the jet first encountered trouble with the first engine. The military hasn't identified the aircraft's position when the decision was made to go to Miramar, or where the closest landing strip was when that decision was made.
It's also unknown what discussions took place between the pilot and civilian and military air controllers, or if returning to the carrier 50 miles offshore was an option. It's not clear if the jet could have approached Coronado from the south -- an important question since travel from other directions could have taken the jet over resorts or neighborhoods.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor declined comment and referred questions to the military.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Manuel Delarosa, declined to disclose the jet's location when engine trouble started, the time of day, its fuel level or whether the aircraft was capable of reaching Coronado, saying to do so could compromise a multipronged investigation.
"We have to be very careful to get all the details correct and make sure the right folks are evaluating whatever information we can gather," Delarosa said.
"To go ahead and rush would be an injustice, not only to the system but the family as well."
Col. Christopher O'Connor, Miramar's commanding officer, warned residents at a forum last week against trying to "armchair-quarterback what the pilot should have done."
In private briefings with members of Congress, military officials have reportedly said there were factors that made landing at North Island unfeasible, though those issues have not been disclosed publicly.
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday the crash could turn out to be "a one-in-1 million occurrence."
Miramar's origins date to 1917, when the site was used to train troops headed to World War I. As late as the 1950s, it was still miles beyond San Diego's urban fringe. In later years homes were built up to the edge of the base, where the Navy established its "Top Gun" training school in 1969.
Ernie Christensen, a retired Navy rear admiral who once commanded the Top Gun fighter school at Miramar, said the North Island base offers a flight route from the south that avoids flying over land but he wouldn't second-guess the decision to go inland.
High winds may prevent landings at North Island, Christensen said, or the pilot may have been closer to Miramar.

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