A Snakebit Squadron

In the navy, some fighter squadrons are hot. Fighter squadron 213, the Fighting Blacklions, is not. The unit is generally regarded as the worst of the navy's 13 F-14 Tomcat squadrons. Top units are regularly awarded a Battle E designation for excellence. The Blacklions last won an E 40 years ago, in 1955. In the past year and a half, the Blacklions have registered by far the worst safety record in the navy, crashing four of the squadron's 14 Tomcats (cost: $40 million a jet). Two of the downed planes were piloted by Lt. Cmdr. John Stacy Bates, 38. The second crash--last week in Nashville, Tenn.--killed him, along with his radar intercept officer and three elderly civilians who were chatting in their house when the 30-ton warplane, the navy's key fighter aircraft, came through the ceiling. The accident may have just been another ease of bad luck for a hot-dog pilot in a snakebit squadron. But it also points to deeper problems in naval aviation.

Preparing to leave Nashville on his way back to base in Miramar, Calif., Bates got permission to make a "maximum performance" takeoff. The navy is investigating whether he was showing off. Navy pilots are not supposed to take off at an angle greater than 45 degrees, but it appears Bates, his afterburners blazing, went practically straight up -- a maneuver performed primarily in air shows. Seconds later his plane crashed to earth.

The first time Bates ruined an F-14 was last April, when he was in a training dog-fight with his commanding officer off the coast of Hawaii. Making a sharp turn, Bates stalled and went into a flat spin, bailing out before his let hit the ocean. Navy pilots are supposed to be aggressive, to fly, as they put it, "close to the edge." But the F-14 is unforgiving. The older models are equipped with a TF80 Pratt and Whitney engine that is underpowered--"an airliner engine on a fighter," scoff naval aviators. Of the approximately 675 F-14s built since the early 1970s, an astonishing 170 have crashed, a third of them bemuse of engine trouble. A $2.5 billion modernization program has been very slow, renovating only 30 percent of the active Tomcats.

Bates should have been able to pull out of his spin the first time he crashed; the navy wrote off the pilot error as a one-time mistake. But some pilots think the navy, which invests $1 million to train a pilot, is sometimes a little too lenient. There are occasional egregious cases, such as Lt. Cmdr. Jim Boyles, who crashed while attempting a near-vertical takeoff in front of his family in Idaho in 1992. Boyles was an accident waiting to happen: he had been diagnosed with a drinking problem and suicidal tendencies, and had been grounded for unsafe flying during the gulf war.

Bates is more typical. One former squadron commander told NEWSWEEK that Bates "wasn't that good a pilot; he was OK. But he walked the walk, had the image of a fighter bubba. He was good-looking, and a good guy to have around." Rather than weed out "good guy" pilots, the navy tries to make a place for them. Squadron 218 just seems to attract more than its share. The most famous Blacklion was Lt. Kara Hultgreen, one of the navy's first female fighter pilots. Stalling her Tomcat while making a carrier landing in October 1994, she was unable to regain control and died in the crash. Some naval aviators groused that Hultgreen had been sent out into the fleet despite a shaky training record just because she was a woman. More seasoned hands agreed she should have been left on the beach. But so, they argued, should the men who fly risky jets too close to the edge.

Height: 16 ft. Length: 62 ft., 8 in. Windspan: 64 ft., 2 in. Weight: 30 tons Aircraft type: Two-seat, carrier-based navy fighter Weapons: 20-mm cannon; up to 8 air-to-air missiles In service: October 1972 Power: Two Pratt & Whitney jet engines Maximum speed: 1,584 mph Cost: $40 million Record: Of 675 F-14s built, 170 have crashed (25%)