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Marine unit in F-18 crash read books, took selfies in previous flights, report finds

Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152 and Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 242 perform air to air refueling April 28, 2016. The units practiced both in the afternoon and at night to ensure maximum readiness in any scenario. (U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Nathan Wicks)
November 08, 2019

A newly released report of the investigative findings of a 2018 aerial collision has identified several breakdowns in professionalism and on-the-job distractions may have contributed to the death of six Marines off the coast of Japan.

Investigators probing the death of an F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet pilot and five crew members of the KC-130J Super Hercules which crashed into the ocean during refueling on Dec. 6, 2018, discovered an “unprofessional command climate” contributed to their fatal collision, according to Independent.

A culture of adultery, drunkenness and drug use among top officers was one factor that compromised the safety of the Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, based in Iwakuni, Japan, the report concluded.

The primary cause of the collision was assessed to be pilot error, and insufficient oversight of training was also a key contributing factor, however, the erosion of professional conduct was also identified by crash investigators.

“Examples of such unprofessionalism included prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse, excessive alcohol consumption, adultery, orders violations, and failures in following fundamental principles of professional aviation training and operations,” the report read.

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Flight schedules were published on the WhatsApp messaging service and investigators discovered the squadron commanding officer took pictures of himself while in flying in formation and with his oxygen mask off.

One pilot was pictured with both hands off the flight controls, grooming his mustache. Another pilot was pictured reading a book with his oxygen mask off.

The squadrons commanding, executive, operations and aviation safety officers were all reportedly fired after the investigation.

The KC-130J Super Hercules refueling tanker was part of a separate unit, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152.

“We must all learn from these failures and not repeat them,” Lt Gen H Stacy Clardy, the commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, said in a statement following the investigative findings.

“As marines, we pride ourselves on a ‘can-do’ attitude,” Clardy said in his additions to the investigative report. “However, this mishap highlights the significant and insidious risk to safe operations and warfighting proficiency introduced when discipline erodes and expectations of excellence are compromised on the premise of ‘can-do.'”

Under its new leadership, the Marine Hornet squadron is expected to undergo a back-to-basics approach to professionalism and safety standards. Those leaders will reportedly reduce complex flight operations in order to simplify the renewed focus on safety.

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“The findings of the investigation reconfirm our need to constantly evaluate risks, identify unsafe conditions, and ensure internal controls are being followed,” the Marine Corps said in a statement provided to Independent. “Investigating ourselves when mishaps and other events occur is vital to helping us identify issues that create unsafe conditions.”