The recovered voice data recorder from the Marine Corps KC-130 bearing the call-sign Sumo 41 captured one last conversation before the air refueler collided with an F/A-18 off the coast of Japan in the early morning hours of Dec. 6, 2018.
“Are they gonna f*cking burn by both of us on each side?" the last transmission from Sumo 41 reads.
“Dude I was about to ask like can they do something cool like we used to? Nobody does that shit anymore. Never. I f*cking like it guys. Excited...whata you say a left turn to, uh back toward ah, actually this is perfect. 12 [Profane 12, the call-sign for the crashed F/A-18] is crossing over the top from left to right. Oh..sheeiit.... what they gonna do? Visual on one. There you go.”
Only wind noise and “non-descript hollering” can be heard on the recorder following that transmission, according to a command investigation obtained by Marine Corps Times in late September.
An inexperienced pilot unqualified for night air-to-air refueling, and a weapons systems officer later found to have had unauthorized Ambien and an over-the-counter cold medicine in his system, had just slammed their F/A-18 into the back of a KC-130 during a night air refueling training exercise.
Profane 11, the call-sign of the second F/A-18 participating in the exercise, would report watching Sumo-41 catch fire and fly nose down into the clouds.
Lt. Col. Kevin R. Herrmann, 38, Maj. James M. Brophy, 36, Staff Sgt. Maximo Alexander Flores, 27, Cpl. William C. Ross, 21, and Cpl. Daniel E. Baker, 21, crew members of KC-130J assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, died in the tragic collision.
Capt. Jahmar F. Resilard, 28, the pilot of the crashed F/A-18 assigned to Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, also perished in the crash. His weapon systems officer was the lone survivor of the mid-air collision.
A Marine Corps investigation faulted an unprofessional command climate that resulted in complacency and a disregard for regulations, a lack of supervision and the lack of proficiency for night refueling operations of the pilot of the crashed Hornet.
Lt. Col. James R. Compton, the commander of VMFA-242, was fired from his position in April before the investigation concluded, due to “loss of trust and confidence."
The Corps said it also fired VMFA-242′s executive officer, operations officer and the aviation safety officer in April.
Resilard — whose name was redacted in the investigation but who had been identified by the Corps as the pilot of the doomed F/A-18 — was a “well respected” and “hard working” officer. But he also ranked 133 out of 139 pilots during his F/A-18 training at Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101, according to the investigation.
Before the collision, he had flown 47 hours less than the 60 hours required by the Corps’ aviation training and readiness logging system known as Marine Sierra Hotel Aviation Readiness Program, or M-SHARP. He only had 13 hours logged.
Dec. 6, 2018, was Resilard’s “first exposure to a night tanker since his initial training” on July 7, 2017, the investigation detailed. The Marine captain was not qualified for night air refueling at the time of crash.
Resilard and his instructor had also incorrectly logged in the training and readiness system that Resilard was qualified for night system air-to-air refueling despite having only completed one of six required night contacts with the fuel basket of a tanker.
Pressure to maintain readiness and tactical proficiency for pilots in the high-threat Indo-Pacific Command theater could have prompted officials at VMFA-242 to sidetrack various training standards.
But it doesn’t appear VMFA-242 was overtasked. VMFA-242 flew 28 percent below the Marine Corps average F/A-18 flight hours in fiscal year 2018, according to the investigation.
“If [Resilard] demonstrated proficiency in plugging on the tanker, I probably decided to focus the remaining range/flight scheduled time on other important training objectives. Conducting night intercepts, for example, may have been one of the training aspects I elected to prioritize over making repeated contact with the tanker basket,” a Marine, whose name was redacted, told investigators.
Despite his lack of qualifications and experience, the squadron’s night cell leader and pilot of Profane 11 requested Resilard and his F/A-18 make a “nonstandard” echelon left movement following detaching from the refueling tanker.
Resilard “had not been previously briefed that he would assume this nonstandard position,” the investigation reads.
As Resilard crossed over Sumo 41 from the left to the right side following refueling, he lost situational awareness and “abruptly” corrected back toward the tanker, hitting the right side rear jump door of the KC-130J.
An echelon left movement following refueling operations is not a more complicated maneuver, it’s just considered nonstandard, Capt. Christopher Harrison, a Marine spokesman, clarified for Marine Corps Times.
“In layman’s terms, the standard is for receiving aircraft to move left to right when operating with the tanker,” Harrison said.
The VMFA-242 squadron also showed complacency and an overall disregard for regulations and policy.
A last minute schedule change on the flight brief before the tragic December flight was made to accommodate night system air refueling operations. That schedule change was never approved by the squadron commander.
Moreover, the flight brief conducted by the pilot of Profane 11, described as “ad-hoc” in the investigation, was not supervised by any senior leadership at the squadron and only lasted ten minutes.
The investigation noted that the flight brief left out important details such as weather, the use of anti-exposure suits or any discussion of operational risk management. Anti-exposure suits can protect pilots if they land in frigid waters.
Out of the seven field grade officers at VMFA-242, none were supervising the night cell, which was comprised entirely of captains.
“Consequently, no senior leadership was scheduled to supervise the most dangerous operational period — the night cell,” the investigation reads.
Two members of that December flight team were also found to have prohibited substances in their systems during the accident.
The pilot of Profane 11, the second F/A-18 had tested positive for Ambien, a sleep aid often prescribed to pilots. The weapon systems officer of the crashed Hornet had a combination of Ambien and an over-the-counter cold medicine in his system. The combination of the two drugs can cause drowsiness, dizziness and confusion, according to side affects.
Neither air crew member was authorized to take these medications at the time of the flight, and both denied to investigators having taken the medication.
Had the flight surgeon known the weapon systems officer was taking these medications he would have been grounded, according to the investigation.
There also seemed to be general lack of understanding of policies related to stimulants and sleep aids among the aviators at VMFA-242, according to texts and chat logs pulled during the investigation.
“Everyone shoot doc a message and ask for ambien, he’s playing hard ball issuing it out,” the weapon systems officer of the crashed Hornet had posted in an online chat on Dec. 3, 2018.
A medical member of the VMFA-242 had refused to give any stimulants to air crew members and cited on several occasions in a chat room available to officers in the unit the various Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures and regulations related to the use of performance enhancing medications.
It is unclear at this time why the pilots were not authorized to take the medication.
The Marine Corps said the only stimulant authorized for use for air crew without prior approval is caffeine.
“In rare instances, the flight surgeon may prescribe sleep aids to assist aircrew in adjusting to changes in sleep schedules, but those, and any other over-the-counter drugs or prescription medication, to include allergy medication, sleep aids, and other common household medications, must be approved by the flight surgeon and the commanding officer prior to flight operations,” Harrison said.
The commanding officer of VMFA-242 never approved the use of stimulants or sleep aids.
The Hornet collided with the tanker sometime after 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2018. Nearly 31 aircraft and 11 Japan Self-Defense Forces launched a multiday search and rescue operation.
Roughly four hours after crashing into the ocean nearly 200 miles off the Japanese coast the weapon systems officer of Profane 12 was rescued by a Japanese SH-60 helicopter.
Resilard was alive for nearly nine hours on the surface of the ocean in 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The Garmin Fenix 3 smartwatch he was wearing recorded an average 86 beats per minute heart rate until 11:30 a.m.
An autopsy showed that Resilard suffered multiple abrasions, contusions, brain bleeding and signs of drowning.
The Naval Aviation Training and Operating Procedures Standardization manual recommends “making anti-exposure suit use mandatory when the water temperature is 50 °F or below, or when the outside air temperature is 32 °F or below (based on the wind chill factor corrected temperature); however, the decision is up to the commanding officer or officer-in-charge of the respective flying unit,” Harrison said.
The water that day was at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the investigation, so the suit was not mandatory.
Since the crash, the Corps says new leadership at VMFA-242 has conducted three safety stand downs with an emphasis on “back to the basics” instructions and an focus on professionalism and safety.
Complex flight operations also were temporarily reduced, and increased requirements for supervision and approvals before all flight operations were added, Corps officials told Marine Corps Times.
The weapon safety officer from Profane 12 received adverse administrative action, according to the Corps, but it did not say why. The Corps did say he “failed his crew responsibilities.”
“The many 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 Monday press release.
“We must all learn from these failures and not repeat them.”
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.