At a quarter past noon on Jan. 21, a U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter flown by a combat-tested pilot named Richard Webb appeared over the Edna Valley and streaked toward San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.Flathatting, the story that keeps giving. A long as there have been testosterone, airplanes, needy-egos, and poor judgment – there has been flathatting.
On its first pass, the Super Hornet screamed along at more than 650 miles an hour, just 96 feet above the main runway. Soon it circled back, touched down on the tarmac for an instant, then went into a steep climb, afterburner roaring, and disappeared in the skies.
Ernie Sebby was in his house less than a mile from the airport. He ran to the front porch and caught a glimpse of the aircraft. It appeared to be painted in gray primer. He could make out no identifying numbers.I’ll have more on this guy in a bit. We all know the type.
A former volunteer at airport community functions and an erstwhile recreational pilot, the 77-year-old retired corrections officer guessed that the plane was a surplus military jet fighter flown "by some guy that's got more money than brains."
The Federal Aviation Administration designation for the airspace above the airport is Class D, meaning that it has a speed limit of 230 mph below 2,500 feet. "Oh boy, we're in trouble," Pehl thought. "We've got a real PR issue…. "Oops!
In today's environment, Sherwood said, there is little tolerance "for misbehavior in any way, whether it's flying an aircraft outside the flight plan or having a few beers in the officers' club."Few things can end a career faster, crashing your plane into a neighborhood killing taxpayers, or even worse – in some eyes – having a few beers. No one goes to O-clubs anymore anyway.
The Navy tradition, he said, is to give a ship's captain or aircraft pilot a great deal of responsibility and autonomy, but to countenance not even the smallest mistake. The Navy "has a reputation for eating its children…. If you mess up, there are no second chances."You don’t have to be a “kid” to get eaten up – though it looks like it is OK to play bumper cars with your DDG….
After graduation from college, Webb became a U.S. Navy aviation officer. He flew F-14 Tomcat jet fighters in combat over Afghanistan and Iraq, taking off from the deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise.You can feel it coming, can’t you? Kind of like the old jokes growing up of what the last words of most “good-ole-boys”..
In January, he was based temporarily at Lemoore Naval Air Station in the San Joaquin Valley, where he was learning to fly the Super Hornet, the Navy's successor to the Tomcat. Sometimes he drove to the San Luis Obispo airport to visit and fly with old friends.
Or the more deadly,
”Heck, I can do that.”
Hey guys, watch this!!
Of his career as a Navy aviator, Webb told him: "Mike, I love this so much I can't believe they're paying me to do it. I'd do it for free."Shipmate, part of the deal is to not do stupid stuff.
On Jan. 21, Webb checked out an F-18 Super Hornet at the Lemoore base for a training flight, to add to the 14.8 hours he had logged in the aircraft's cockpit. His superiors assumed that he would fly to a designated military training area above Sequoia and Death Valley national parks, 100 miles to the east.Ohhh, that hurts just to read. This isn’t some 22 yr old kid in a T-34 flying out of Whiting Field – and BTW it’s not about you.
Webb had other ideas.
"When I made a quick decision to fly down to my old airport and do a flyby, you can imagine what I was thinking…. " Webb wrote. "I could now be the guy who seemed to explode out of nowhere doing a high-speed afterburner pass, leaving a lasting impression on a young kid. Talk about the circle being completed…."
Minutes after Webb's flight, telephone console lights in the airport administrative offices blazed. "Everybody heard it — the whole city heard it," said airport manager Klaasje Nairne. "The phone rang off the hook … it rocked our world."Yep, him again.
About half an hour after the plane departed, Sebby e-mailed Nairne, asking her to find out the plane's identity. He expressed concern that "the tremendous noise generated will set airport and community relations back years."
After airport officials got in touch, the Navy convened an evaluation board to consider Webb's conduct. Webb admitted performing the flyby and knowing that it was against the rules. The board also reviewed two other incidents in Webb's past which, in the Navy's view, involved questionable judgment by the aviator.A FNAEB board, I presume. Time to take out a fork.
Upon learning of the threat to Webb's career, San Luis Obispo airport officials expressed concern about the reaction they had sparked. On Feb. 15, Nairne wrote Webb's superiors that "it was never our intent to be a party to the end of this gentleman's naval aviation career." If that were the result, she wrote, "it would be most regrettable."The die is cast. If you are going to raise hell, take responsibility for the consequences … just like Webb.
Although a superior officer acknowledged that Webb was "an energetic junior officer and talented aviator," the commander of the Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, Webb's home command, concluded that his flyby "merits termination of flying status."At this point, you may feel sorry for the good LT (I believe – maybe LCDR), don’t. There may have been hope for him – though rare in this case – if he groveled enough and showed contrition – to at least keep his Wings or even keep flying through transition and or NPLOR/PLOR in a following Mast – but I doubt it. He had too much experience and we tolerate this too little that the need to gibbet someone doing this too great. Anyway, he kept digging.
Webb's wings were pulled. He was exiled to a desk job in Qatar in the Middle East, and left to ponder the four remaining years of his service commitment as a groundling.
On June 3, he sent an e-mail to Sebby, carbon-copying more than 30 friends and others in the aviation community. Webb told Sebby that his grounding was "a direct result of your indignant e-mail," which he characterized as "scathing."Bravo Sierra to the last comment. I’ll take the best 100 fighter pilots in the Navy and the AirFarce right now, and at best you might find the VERY low single digit % had ever even come close to doing this. If that. More digging.
In regard to his unauthorized flyby, Webb wrote, "No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they've never done the exact same thing."
Webb concluded that he was "not apologetic for what I did, and if given the chance, I'd do the same thing again…. It's just incredibly hard to admit fault, and accept such disproportionate punishment, to an action that probably helped recruit many young kids in town that day…. I feel ashamed to have my close friends die to protect your freedom to complain about how we do our job."That’s it Shipmate. With that attitude, you would never make it out of any FNAEB board ever convened. Navy aviation just does not take well poor professionalism. You look like the 2005 poster child.
Oh, what happened to the prison guard, you ask?
Sebby is not as sympathetic. Webb's missive brought down on him an avalanche of angry e-mails, and some anonymous, harassing phone calls. Sebby contacted Navy officials to complain of what he came to see as Webb's orchestration of a vilification campaign against him.Sure, Webb shouldn’t have hit the “send” key, but you are a know-it-all, busy-body, wannabe. Your type can be found at any airshow, Army museum, or USNI Seminar.
"I wasn't trying to prosecute anyone or get him fired or grounded," Sebby said in an interview. "I had no idea it was even a military aircraft. This thing he orchestrated against me … I want the Navy to know I'm not going to let this drop because I'm offended, deeply offended, by this."
I am offended by your puss-ant ability to be offended. Poseur wannabee pain-in-the-ass. You almost make me feel sympathetic to Webb.
I know some of you think that Webb was hit to hard. Not me. We don’t have the aircraft, time, professional and political capital to put up with that kind of stupidity. Don’t take my word for it though.
"I was very much floored when I read this report," said one former F-18 instructor who agreed to be interviewed but was under orders from a commander to not be quoted by name. "This was so far out of the realm of acceptability it's ludicrous…. What he did was practically unheard of, extremely unusual … 500 knots at 96 feet is way beyond his ability…. That's extreme poor judgment having only 14.8 hours" of flight time in an F-18. "This kid was an accident waiting to happen. It was a blessing they got to him before he killed somebody and that was something that was going to happen."
Webb's case illustrates the balance a modern fighter pilot must strike between aggressiveness and daring on the one hand, and tight adherence to discipline and procedure on the other.
"You want your young men and women to fly aggressively, fly tough, fly mean, so when you need them to do tough things, they can go into battle and win," Whitcomb said. "But that aggression has got to be properly tempered, so when it's not called for, it doesn't get them in trouble.
"Nowadays, you can't accept needless loss. This F-18, this is the top-of-the-line, multi-multimillion-dollar aircraft extremely capable of doing some really amazing things, and we want the young people we bring in to be able to do those extra things, but always under control and carefully directed because it's very easy to lose control of a jet like that."
We do “empower” our people, and we do expect a lot out of them, and frankly we do expect them to make mistakes from time to time. And mostly, so long as no one gets maimed or killed, or no serious damage is done to national treasures, we help them learn from their mistakes and move on. But let’s be perfectly clear here: The young man didn’t make a “mistake.” A mistake is when you reach down to turn the air conditioning up and accidentally vent the cabin pressure overboard. Or when you go to turn the landing light off on the rollout and put the launch bar down instead. Or you think the bandit is tail-on and you go to boresight him, only to find out that he’s head-on with a bag of knots and now you’re a whole lot closer than you’d like to be. A mistake is forgetting to set your radar altimeter. Any one of those mistakes can kill you, and you’d get a missing man fly by and a 21 gun salute, and your friends would speak well of you after.Yep, on target. Chap is yapping about it too.
But this young man didn’t make a mistake. He deliberately set out to do something which he had to know would land him in dutch if he got called on it, and he did it in a fashion almost guaranteed to ensure that he would get called on it. That’s just damned poor judgment.