The following are the results of the command investigation into the Oct. 1, 2017 crash of a T-45C Goshawk Trainer from Training Squadron (VT) Seven that killed instructor pilot Lt. Patrick Lawrence Ruth and student aviator Lt. j.g. Wallace Eugene Burch.
From the Investigation:
a. On Sunday, 1 October 2Ol7, at approximately 1600 local (EDT), a T-45C jet aircraft assigned to Training Squadron SEVEN (VT-7) and piloted by LT Patrick Ruth (Instructor Pilot (IP)) and LTJG Wallace Burch (Student Naval Aviator (SNA)), impacted an isolated area of the mountainous National Forest near Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Tragically, neither the IP nor the SNA survived the crash.
b. The cause of the mishap was not due to mechanical, maintenance, or weather related issues. The cause of the mishap is not related to a physiological episode on the part of either the IP or the SNA nor due to inadequate written training procedures or directions. Rather, this mishap resulted from individual pilot error, a culture within VT-7, and Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) at large, which fostered IPs and SNAS flying their aircraft beyond the bounds of approved Naval Air Training Command (NATRACOM) curriculum, and a failure of leadership to oversee training operations to ensure strict adherence to all approved publications.
c. The mishap flight was the second leg of a properly scheduled Operational Navigation (ONAV) Low Altitude Awareness Training (LAAT) flight on an approved military training route (MTR). The aircrew was returning to their home base of Naval Air Station Meridian, as the final event in an approved weekend cross-country mission during which several ONAV LAAT training events were conducted.
d. As documented in the Second Endorsement, the IP was “flat hatting” (flight conducted at low altitude and/or a high rate of speed for thrill purposes) during various parts of this particular cross-country training event, and actively encouraged/instructed his SNA to follow his example.
The investigation further demonstrated that this IP was overly confident, nonchalant, and aggressive at low altitude training, with limited awareness of the performance capabilities of the T-45C in the LAAT environment. This attitude influenced the IP’s instructional style, and conditioned the SNA to fly the aircraft in an aggressive manner, without correction from the IP.
e. At the time of the mishap, events were being flown at the direction of the IP that exceeded approved training curriculum, specifically tactical type maneuvers. This included aggressive ridgeline crossings and descending tums that took them below the minimum altitude of 500 feet above ground level (AGL) many times, to include potentially as low as 210 feet AGL. Per the written syllabus they should not have been operating so close to the limits of the aircraft’s performance. Such advanced skills and abilities are the responsibility of the Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRSS) to train and are not part of the NATRACOM curriculum.
f. Approximately 35 seconds before the mishap, the IP told the SNA that they would deviate from the direct line of the MTR in order to follow terrain. The IP assumed control of the aircraft 26 seconds before mishap, and commenced a descending tum to demonstrate terrain following techniques. The IP nonchalantly returned the aircraft to the SNA I0 seconds before the mishap, and then instructed the SNA to make a hard right tum. What neither the IP nor SNA knew was that they were too slow and too low relative to the rising terrain in front of them and that the attempted control input to recover was beyond the limitations of the aircraft. In response to their maneuvers the aircraft entered into a stall. By the time the aircrew realized they were in extremis, it was too late to eject safely.