By Mike Hixenbaugh
All appeared normal from inside the glass-enclosed control tower seven stories above Oceana Naval Air Station.
A fuel truck rumbled along the flight line. A squadron of fighter jets – blinking red dots in an expanse of blue – lined up miles apart for landings. A pair of F/A-18 Hornets rocketed down a runway, lifting off the ground seconds apart.
Then came a disturbing sight. A flash of light, followed by a boom. At 12:04 p.m., James Nairn’s voice crackled over a radio.
“Hey, dash-two just had a huge flame come out the back of his engine,” the 22-year-old air traffic controller said. “You need to let us know what’s going on.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Nairn sounded surprisingly calm for someone who was watching a $29 million fighter jet and the two aviators inside it falling toward the suburbs.
More than a year after a malfunctioning Hornet crashed into the Mayfair Mews apartment complex shortly after takeoff, newly released audio recordings from the air traffic control tower offer a fresh perspective from that well-documented day.
The recordings – more than four hours in total – were obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act. The audio reveals a team of young and veteran air traffic controllers who seemed to keep their cool on what could have been their worst day.
The view from the tower was suddenly distressing.
More flames burst from the troubled aircraft. Smoke and fuel poured out the back. The jet leveled off a few hundred feet above the ground. Then it started to fall.
“Hey, he’s losing altitude,” radioed Nairn, the tower supervisor. “He’s going… aww, shit.”
That understated utterance – the only hint of human emotion captured in the recordings – came as the plane disappeared behind the trees that buffer the airfield from the city. Everyone in the tower froze. Seconds ticked by before they saw an ejection seat and parachute burst above the treeline. Or was it two chutes? The thought was interrupted by an explosion – a fireball, then a blast so powerful it rattled the control tower’s windows.
An eerie silence occupied the space normally filled with fast-paced radio chatter.
The flight data controller turned to Mark McDaniel, the local controller that day. “Should I ring the crash phone?” he asked.
McDaniel, a retired chief petty officer with nearly 25 years of air traffic controlling experience, gazed toward a plume of smoke. He nodded slowly before choking out a response: “Yes.”
The one-word answer snapped everyone back into action.
Nairn got on the radio with the jet that had taken off 10 seconds before the downed aircraft.
“Three Seven, Oceana Tower. Where’s your wingman, sir?”
After confirming that the aircraft crashed about a mile from the base, the pilot circled back around and described the view from above.
“Tower, make sure you got the local fire trucks coming,” the pilot said. “It’s a pretty big fire right now.”
Several minutes passed before the tower was able to confirm that both aviators had ejected before impact. Next question: Where exactly did it crash?
Floors below in the radar room, Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Powers got on the radio. He needed to redirect more than a dozen jets that were coming in for landings at Oceana. Powers, 24 at the time, had been certified to perform that job only a month earlier. He scrambled to put the aircraft into a holding pattern before sending them to land at Norfolk Naval Station’s Chambers Field.
One of the last pilots Powers redirected jolted him back to the moment with an unusually earnest remark: “Thanks for all your help today, sir.”
“Oh, yeah,” Powers recalled thinking, the adrenaline beginning to fade. “A jet just crashed.”
Up in the tower, McDaniel coordinated with a Virginia Beach Police helicopter. The chopper pilot confirmed that both aviators were safe.
McDaniel then asked the question that had been gnawing at him. “Where did they land the aircraft?”
He waited 12 minutes and 46 seconds for a definitive response.
“It looks like the damage is a very large apartment building,” the police helicopter pilot said. “We don’t know of any injuries, yet.”
McDaniel felt like the air had been sucked from the room. A few tower personnel wiped away tears, and a moment later, a backup crew reported to relieve them. That’s standard protocol after a traumatic event. The Navy trains its air traffic controllers to keep their emotions in check, but even the best are still human.
As firefighters hustled to contain the inferno raging a couple of miles away, the controllers who had coordinated the initial response were herded into a conference room and asked to write statements.
They sat around a table and stared vacantly at the sheets of paper in front of them. Cellphones buzzed with texts from friends and family.
McDaniel thought of his children – home that day for Good Friday – and wondered how many people might have been seriously hurt or even killed.
An entire day would pass before he learned that the answer was zero.