Gramps from yesteryear...
Three F/A-18 Hornets launched from the NAS on an air combat maneuvering training flight with an "opponent" section consisting of an F-14 Tomcat and an F-4 Phantom. The Hornets proceeded separately to the working area.
The Hornet flight leader began a left turn to establish a southerly intercept heading, with number two on his left wing and number three on the right. A moment later, number two (the section leader) called. "Let's come right," to reverse the section to the right, accomplish a 270-degree turn, and establish an eight- to 10-mile trail position on the division leader. Number three said, "OK," and maneuvered his aircraft from a right-wing position to cross above and to the left of number two in the turn.
Passing through a southeasterly heading, the section leader called, "Three not visual." (The last time the section leader had visually sighted number three was at commencement of the division leader's left turn.)
The section leader next said, "Two's at 22,000."
"Roger," acknowledged the unseen number three.
The section leader reported his position "on the western side of the ridge."
"Looking," said number three.
The section leader said he was "nine miles in trail [of the flight leader]."
Number three transmitted, "Roger." At this point, three left his position 2,000 feet above and to the left of the section leader in a descent, southward.
After a few more seconds, number three collided with the section leader, nose section to tail section. There was heavy damage to number three's nose section and to the aft underside and nozzle area of the section leader. Altitude was about 22,000 feet at impact. The pilot of number three was subjected to direct exhaust blast from the section leader's engine and sustained fatal injuries when cockpit integrity was breached. The aircraft crashed one minute after the midair collision.
The section leader's Hornet was marginally controllable, the aft portion of the engines and airframe damaged. He headed for a divert airfield. The situation worsened as other systems failed to operate properly. The flight leader joined on him and saw flames, approximately the length of the F/A-18, emanating from the left engine area, and reported the same to the pilot. Shortly, the section leader was unable to maintain altitude or airspeed. He realized he could not reach the divert field and prepared for ejection. He radioed the divert field about his intentions but received no response. He successfully ejected just above 4,000 feet.
Parachute descent was normal and the pilot was ambulatory after landing. Search-and-rescue procedures were initiated and the pilot communicated with the flight leader circling overhead, using the PRC-90 emergency radio. Ground parties arrived as helicopter assistance was en route. The pilot was taken to a nearby hospital. He suffered minor injuries.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Gol dang it, this is a heartbreaker! Troops, you just gotta maintain safe separation distance, 'specially when you're movin' those high-tech machines around out there. Havin' the best equipment in the universe won't help if you drop your guard even for an instant. The basic rules of safety don't change.
We don't know why the pilot descended through the section leader's altitude. Maybe he misunderstood the geographic position call. Whatever, 'pears he got a couple of thousand feet above and maybe even ahead of the other Hornet in the turn and couldn't see him. He made some adjustments, Came down at a good clip, and then slammed into the section leader's tail--with tragic results.
The decision to descend, without seeing the other aircraft, was critical. Remember that ... and keep your distance...
(Originally published in September-October 1991)