Fighter Pilots Grounded after Flyby

Two F/A-18E Super Hornet pilots were grounded–permanently–after a board decided that their flyby of a college football game was intentionally too low and thus “unsafe.”  A Military Times article states that the pilots performed a flyby of the November 7, 2009 Georgia Tech v Wake Forest game below the 1,000 foot minimum set by Navy rules…and then reported the incident after landing.  (The flyby in question is on YouTube, which also lists the names of the pilots and indicates they were both 96 grads of Georgia Tech.  The flyby was low-speed, gear down, and high power.)

The pilots went before a Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, which is likely equivalent to the Air Force’s Flight Evaluation Board.  The boards are generally used to determine if an aviator should be allowed to continue flying after an incident in which their judgment is questioned.   The Navy does not release the results of those boards, but the Military Times was provided a copy of the report.

Notably, both pilots were removed from flying status, despite the fact that the wingman is not in control of the formation and often has much lower situational awareness as to the precise flight path of the formation.  (In the most famous example, an entire flight of Thunderbirds was killed when they followed their flight lead into the ground.)  In this case, the Navy ruled that the wingman failed to prevent his flight lead from breaking the rules, making him equally culpable.

While flybys look fun, they are part of a long tradition of things in the fighter pilot world that are described this way:

The best you can do is break even.

The likelihood of getting something positive out of the event is miniscule or nonexistent; if all goes perfectly, the best outcome is that you won’t get in trouble.  On the other hand, the likelihood of a negative outcome–brought about by any of a huge number of possible contributors–is significant, and the magnitude of that result is equally significant.  As these two Naval aviators demonstrated, a simple flyby ended their aviating careers.

But if they’d done it perfectly?  You never would have heard about it.  The best you can do is break even.