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PILOTS THANKFUL FOR THEIR LIVES : NAVY FA-18 FLIERS RECOUNT EVENTS FOLLOWING MIDAIR COLLISION.

Byline: William H. McMichael Newport News Daily Press

Rugged jets helped them survive, the fliers said. So did divine intervention.

``We had a couple of angels flying with us yesterday.''

That's how Lt. Cmdr. William G. Stubbs figures he and fellow pilot Lt. Cmdr. Greg S. Anderson managed to fly their crippled jets home safely following the midair collision of their FA-18A Hornets on Tuesday afternoon during a training exercise over the Atlantic.

Anderson didn't disagree.

The two pilots, both Navy reservists and Persian Gulf War veterans, have been grounded, standard procedure while a series of medical, psychological and technical evaluations are completed, said their commander, Cmdr. Roger Dadiomoff of Composite Fighter Squadron 12. No cause or fault for the midair collision of the $28 million jets has yet been determined, a process the Navy said could take months.

But whatever the outcome of those findings, one up-close look at the damaged jets at Oceana Naval Air Station was enough to convince anyone that the safe return of the jets was nothing short of remarkable. Anderson's was missing its nose, its canopy and the use of its right engine; Stubbs' lost parts of its left wing and left rudder.

Daryl Stephenson, a spokesman for FA-18 manufacturer McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, is used to touting the airplane's ``survivability.'' But upon hearing a description of the damage, even he said, ``That's pretty amazing.''

The Navy made the fliers available for interviews Wednesday at Oceana, their home base. Because an investigation is continuing, the fliers did not discuss details of the accident or why they thought it occurred, and were allowed only to address the events following the impact, officials said.

The two men had flown together for four years. Tuesday they were at 20,000 feet, about 35 miles off the North Carolina coast and 65 miles southeast of Norfolk, Va., with two other FA-18s at one end of a 60-mile-wide training range. The jets, which had been airborne for about 45 minutes, flew northward, playing the role of enemy fighters for an undisclosed number of F-14s from Fighter Squadron 41 flying on the range's opposite end. Dadiomoff called it a ``medium-complexity'' mission.

The jets flown by Stubbs and Anderson were cruising side-by-side at about 400 mph when, Anderson said, ``We collided.''

``I saw it coming, and tried to maneuver to get out of the way,'' said Anderson, who was flying to the left of Stubbs. It was too late; he braced himself for the impact. ``I thought, `Well, it's my time,' '' he said. ``I was shocked to find out that it wasn't.''

Stubbs didn't see the impending collision. ``It felt like a giant speed bump,'' he said. The jets separated after the impact. Anderson careened into a left roll; he lost control for a few seconds, he said. He had lost his nose cone, his canopy, his hydraulics, his instrumentation and power in one engine. ``There was a lot of air in the cockpit,'' he recalled. His wristwatch was torn off his arm.

``It certainly makes you jump,'' he said. ``You just think, `Settle down, evaluate what happened.' ''

Stubbs' jet, flying on the right, also began to roll left; the impact tore a 5-foot section of the left wing off his jet, bent the wing's rear flap up against the fuselage and sheared 3 feet from the top of the left rudder.

Stubbs recalled a ``momentary disorientation.'' Then he got a grip on himself, and instinct kicked in. Stubbs slowed to about 230 mph and gave the jet ``hard right stick and right rudder'' to right himself.

Once the two jets were stabilized, each pilot did a quick damage assessment. Despite the wing damage, Stubbs wasn't in bad shape. He was leaking fuel from a small storage tank in the wing.

Anderson, flying with a blunted front end, had to slow down below 200 mph and crouch behind his windscreen. ``My feet were constantly working the rudders to keep the airplane flying,'' he said.

Anderson remained aloft in part because the flight control computers compensated for the jet's losses. Stephenson said FA-18s are equipped with two mission computers, a redundancy he said is reflected elsewhere in the jet - in the two rudders and two engines, for example - to increase its chances of survival in the event of a collision or missile strike.

Anderson was down to one scratchy radio, on one frequency. But help came in the form of another FA-18 and two F-14s from VF-41 squadron, which pulled alongside and passed along valuable data. Anderson couldn't tell how fast he was going, if he was leaking fuel or if his landing gear went down. All that information and more was radioed over from the other jets.

Because he wasn't leaking and was aware of his fuel stores before the impact, ``I knew I had plenty of gas to make it home at a slow airspeed,'' he said. Anderson, familiar with the area, chose the least-populated route home, he said.

Stubbs, meanwhile, continued on ahead, and the fliers lost sight of each other on the return trip. Both fliers descended gradually, half-gliding back to Virginia Beach, constantly checking their control of the jets.

They got their landing gear down and landed safely.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Navy personnel at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virgin ia Beach tow one of two FA-18 Hornets damaged in a midair collision.

Associated Press
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 28, 1996
Words:900
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