A critical error in judgment -- that's how military officials describe the actions of the pilot who crashed his jet into a University City neighborhood, killing four people.
The recordings were released shortly after noon.
"The pilot pulled up his fuel-tank display in the cockpit, realized something wasn't right but did not correctly analyze the situation....," said Col. John Rupp, the operations officer for the 3rd Marine Air Wing. "If the pilot had elected to land at North Island, this mishap would've been prevented."
Federal recordings released today reveal that Lt. Dan Neubauer, the jet's pilot, was given two chances to land at Naval Air Station North Island on Coronado. Instead, he crashed in a University City neighborhood while trying to land at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Thirteen Marines were disciplined for errors that led to the crash, including four officers at MCAS Miramar who have been relieved of duty. The Marine Corps has not decided whether to discipline Neubauer, who has been grounded while his flight status is being reviewed.
Recordings of conversations between federal air controllers and Neubauer reveal that the pilot of the ailing F/A18D Hornet at least twice was offered a chance to put down the plane at the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado. The base sits at the tip of a peninsula with a flight path from the south over water.
Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration tapes disclose the pilot decided to fly the jet, which had lost one engine and was having signs of trouble with the second engine, to the inland Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which is about 10 miles north of Coronado.
That route took Neubauer over the University City neighborhood, where the Dec. 8 crash incinerated two homes and damaged three others.
"This was a tragic incident that could have been prevented," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a statement. Had Neubauer and senior military officials followed proper procedures and landed at Coronado "the crash would not have occurred."
It's difficult to determine Neubauer's precise location from the tapes, but he reported his position as 20 miles south of Coronado, flying at 13,000 feet with 20 to 30 minutes of fuel remaining less than a minute before he was asked by controllers if he wanted to land at Coronado, according to the tapes.
When air controllers told Neubauer a runway was available at Coronado, he said, "I'm actually going to try to take it to Miramar if possible."
According to the recordings, air controllers gave Neubauer instructions that would allow for a landing at either Coronado or Miramar. At one point he was given a heading to follow but indicated he was having trouble with the jet.
"I'm trying, sir, but single engine," Neubauer said.
Neubauer said he wanted to land at Miramar and told controllers to have emergency crews ready on the ground. At one point he told controllers he was within sight of Miramar, but about two minutes later, according to the tapes, an unidentified pilot reported seeing smoke on the ground near the Miramar base.
Neubauer ejected safely.
Four members of a Korean family were killed in their home -- Young Mi Yoon, 36; her daughters Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months; and her mother, Suk Im Kim, 60. Kim was visiting from South Korea to help her daughter move across town and adjust to the arrival of her second child.
Military officials say the jet suffered a rare double-engine failure and Marine generals initially defended the choice to send the Hornet to the Miramar base.
The disclosures in the tapes raise at least the possibility that the crash might have been averted. Since the crash, a lingering question has been why the pilot didn't attempt a landing at Coronado over open water.
Military officials have said that after the first engine faltered, Miramar was a straight shot and that going to North Island would have required more engine thrust.
But the tapes indicate that the limping jet apparently was closer to Coronado when the pilot reported a possible problem with the second engine.
The Miramar base is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by residential areas that include a high school.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Manuel Delarosa, in December declined to disclose the plane's location when the engine trouble started or whether the aircraft was capable of reaching Coronado, saying to do so could compromise the investigation.
In private briefings with members of Congress, military officials have reportedly said there were factors that made landing at North Island unfeasible but those issues have not been disclosed publicly.
Miramar dates 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, but homes have since been built right up to the edge of the base, where the Navy established its "Top Gun" fighter training school in 1969.