It is late in the morning one day last December.
A plane is in distress, it’s lost one engine and now two and it’s going down, and people on the ground hear the sound, look up, say, “That’s going awful low,” and whip out their cellphones. You could see the pictures they took later on the news.
It sounds like Chesley Sullenburger and US Airways Flight 1549, but that was five weeks later. This was the military jet that went down in San Diego; this was the story that ended badly.
Then this week it took a turn. And looked at a certain way, the San Diego story is every bit as big, and elements of it just as deserving of emulation, as Sully saving all souls when he put down in the Hudson.
It’s Dec. 8, 2008, 11:11 a.m., and a young Marine pilot takes off from an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, on a routine training flight. The carrier is maybe 90 miles southwest of San Diego. Lt. Dan Neubauer is flying an F/A-18 Hornet. Minutes into the flight, he notices low oil pressure in one of the two engines. He shuts it down. Then the light shows low fuel for the other engine. He’s talking to air traffic control and given options and suggestions on where to make an emergency landing. He can go to the naval air station at North Island, the route to which takes him over San Diego Bay, or he can go to the Marine air station at Miramar, with which he is more familiar, but which takes him over heavily populated land. He goes for Miramar. The second engine flames out. About three miles from the runway, the electrical system dies. Lt. Neubauer tries to aim the jet toward a canyon, and ejects at what all seem to agree is the last possible moment.
The jet crashed nose down in the University City neighborhood of San Diego, hitting two homes and damaging three. Four people, all members of a Korean immigrant family, were killed—36-year-old Youngmi Lee; her daughters, Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months, and her 60-year-old mother, Seokim Kim.
Lee’s husband, a grocer named Dong Yun Yoon, was at work. The day after he’d lost his family, he humbled and awed San Diego by publicly forgiving the pilot—“I know he did everything he could”—and speaking of his faith—“I know God is taking care of my family.”
His grace and generosity were staggering, but there was growing local anger at the military. Why was the disabled plane over land? The Marines launched an investigation—of themselves. This Wednesday the results were announced.
They could not have been tougher, or more damning. The crash, said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, the assistant wing commander for the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, was “clearly avoidable,” the result of “a chain of wrong decisions.” Mechanics had known since July of a glitch in the jet’s fuel-transfer system; the Hornet should have been removed from service and fixed, and was not. The young pilot failed to read the safety checklist. He relied on guidance from Marines at Miramar who did not have complete knowledge or understanding of his situation. He should have been ordered to land at North Island. He took an unusual approach to Miramar, taking a long left loop instead of a shorter turn to the right, which ate up time and fuel.
Twelve Marines were disciplined; four senior officers, including the squadron commander, were removed from duty. Their military careers are, essentially, over. The pilot is grounded while a board reviews his future.
Residents told the San Diego Union-Tribune that they were taken aback by the report. Bob Johnson, who lived behind the Yoons and barely escaped the crash, said, “The Marines aren’t trying to hide from it or duck it. They took it on the chin.” A retired Navy pilot who lives less than a block from the crash and had formed, with neighbors, a group to push the Marines for an investigation, and for limiting flights over University City, said after the briefing, “I think we’re out of business.” In a later story the paper quoted a retired general, Bob Butcher, chairman of a society of former Marine aviators, calling the report “as open and frank a discussion of an accident as I’ve seen.” “It was a lot more candid than many people expected.”
This wasn’t damage control, it was taking honest responsibility. And as such, in any modern American institution, it was stunning.
The day after the report I heard from a young Naval aviator in predeployment training north of San Diego. He flies a Super Hornet, sister ship to the plane that went down. He said the Marine investigation “kept me up last night” because of how it contrasted with “the buck-passing we see” in the government and on Wall Street. He and his squadron were in range of San Diego television stations when they carried the report’s conclusions live. He’d never seen “our entire wardroom crowded around a television” before. They watched “with bated breath.” At the end they were impressed with the public nature of the criticism, and its candor: “There are still elements within the government that take personal responsibility seriously.” He found himself wondering if the Marines had been “too hard on themselves.” “But they are, after all, Marines.”
By contrast, he says, when the economy came crashing down, “nowhere did we see a board come out and say: ‘This is what happened, these are the decisions these particular people made, and this was the result. They are no longer a part of our organization.’ There was no timeline of events or laymen’s explanation of how a credit derivative was actually derived. We did not see congressmen get on television with charts and eviscerate their organization and say, ‘These were the men who in 2003 allowed Freddie and Fannie unlimited rein over mortgage securities.’ Instead we saw . . . everybody against everybody else with no one stepping forth and saying, ‘We screwed up.’” There is no one in national leadership who could convincingly “assign blame,” and no one “who could or would accept it.”
This of course is true, but somehow more stinging when said by a serviceman.
* * *
The White House this week was consumed by extreme interest in a celebrated radio critic, reportedly coordinating an attack line with antic Clinton-era political operatives who don’t know what time it is. For them it’s always the bouncy ‘90s and anything goes, it’s all just a game. President Obama himself contributes to an atmosphere of fear grown to panic as he takes a historic crisis and turns it into what he imagines is a grand opportunity for sweeping change. What we need is stabilization—an undergirding, a restrengthening so things can settle and then rise. What we’re given is multiple schemes, and the beginning of a reordering of financial realities between the individual and the state.
The Obama people think they are playing big ball, not small ball, and they no doubt like the feeling of it: “We’re making history.” But that, ironically, was precisely the preoccupation of the last administration—doing it big, being “consequential,” showing history. Watch: Within six months, the Obama administration will be starting to breathe the word “legacy.”
What they’re up to will win and hold support, at least for a while, until the reaction.
But is it responsible? Or is it only vain?
Anyway, all honor this week to the Marines, who were very much the former, not the latter.