The decisions we live with


(AP Photo)

An F-18 jet crashed into an apartment building in Virginia this afternoon. The two-pilots ejected, so let’s deal with the obvious question that few people will actually want to ask: Why would a pilot eject from his jet if there was a chance it was going to kill people on the ground?

The answer likely can be found in this map. The icon shows the location of the crash:


If the jet was merely crippled, the pilots could’ve steered it toward the ocean, then bailed. But note what lies to the lower left of the icon — the airport. It’s not known yet whether the jet was taking off or landing at the airport when the crash occurred, but in either case the close proximity of both runway and ocean indicates the pilots didn’t have the ability to steer the plane to an area where it wouldn’t hurt someone. And they likely only had a second or two to decide what to do.

These sorts of accidents, though few, lead many people in military aviation to think of this:

Hero tree

(Photo: Wiki Commons)

This is the “hero tree” in Houston, which honors Capt. Gary Herod, who crashed his jet trainer on the site in 1961. His plane was crippled and air traffic controllers were advising him to bail out.

“Not yet,” he said. And those were his last words. There were too many houses below, so he steered his jet to an open area. He died in the crash.

A similar problem faced Don Hinz of Woodbury in 2004. The former Navy pilot was flying a red-tail P-51 near the airport in Red Wing when his engine stopped. He steered it away from people on the ground, power lines, and landed between nearby houses. It all happened within 30 seconds, and he died of his injuries.

  • Jim Shapiro

    In December of 2008 in San Diego, a marine pilot bailed out of his F/A 18-D Hornet, and it crashed into a house in a neighborhood, killing a grandmother, her daughter, and two infants.

    Investigators determined mechanical failure in the aircraft and a series of bad decisions by the pilot and ground personnel.

    In January of this year, a judge awarded the surviving son, spouse and father of the victims $17.8 million.

    Defense budget for FY 2012: $671 Billion. With a B.

    A month ago, the government appealed, arguing that the award was excessive.

    God have mercy on America.

  • Andrew

    @Jim Shapiro

    That’s pretty disgusting, 17 Million doesn’t begin to address it.

    I hope no one is killed in this accident. I think the argument for not bailing out has merit, if they could have up until the very last second at least tried to prevent injury or death to innocent bystanders then they have a duty to at least try, not only as service men but as pilots. If there’s no chance of that then bailing has merit because it means less casualties. That should be the criteria for judging these pilots.

  • Theresa

    My fathers cousin died in the 70’s in a similiar situation. He was a Canadian fighter pilot who, while on a training run in Germany, refused to bail out over a town. He flew passed the town and crashed losing his life but saving countless others.

    Thank God there are some decisions the vast majority of us will never have to make.

  • Jeffrey

    Excellent article. Well written and well researched. I hope your assumptions are true and I hope there were no fatalities.

  • Matt

    I was impressed that the pilots had the forethought to dump the fuel before the crash.

    That action likely saved lives by greatly reducing the size of the fire.

  • kennedy

    We are not in a position to judge the actions of these aviators. I’m sure others who are better informed are already deep into investigation. Glad there were no fatalities.

  • tim barzen


    Thanks for your insight into the story behind the headlines. Thanks also for using Don Hinz as an example of the heroic acts that are often displayed by pilots in this type of emergancy situation. Don died while telling the story of his Heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen. When Don experienced his catastrophic engine failure at the Redwing air show, he accomplished all of the emergancy proceedures perfectly, used all of the resources available as he tried to glide back to the airport. Rather than trying to fly over some wires between Don and the airport and risk loosing control of the aircraft & crashing into a nearby house, Don skillfully flew under the wires mainting control of the aircraft until impact with the ground avoiding the possible loss of life of the homeowner. As you point out Bob, these decisions are made in just a few seconds. I have no doubt that Navy pilots at Oceana made their numerous critical decisions in miliseconds. The consequences of those correct decisions, I have no doubt saved many lives.

    It is important to note that F-18 is an electronic airplane run by numerous computers which run complex hydraulic & warning systems among others. With all of the distractions of the catastrophic failures and the activation of those very loud and intense system alerts it is a testiment to their training and flying skills that they could analyze the problem, take the appropriate action to point a potentially out of control aircraft to a place on the ground where there would be the least chance of loss of life, & stay with it long enough before ejecting . That, along with a huge dose of luck and/or Devine intervention made the difference between life and death.