A Marine electronics warfare jet slammed onto the wrong part of the USS Nimitz' flight deck late Tuesday night, skidded off to the right and ended up in a ball of flames near the bow of the giant aircraft carrier, killing 14 men and injuring at least 48 others, Navy officials said yesterday. k
The Navy did not immediately release the names of the dead and injured, because not all the next of kin had been notified.
Although preliminary indications suggested pilot error, Navy spokesman said they would not be able to determine the cause of the firey crash until after an investigation likely to take six months.
The fireball that shot up from the bow of the flight deck when the EA6B radar-jamming plane smashed into other aircraft parked off to the side of the landing zone apparently caused most of the deaths and injuries.
Over $100 million in fighter and attack aircraft on the carrier were believed to have been destroyed or damaged in a rapid-fire series of collisions as the errant plane careened across the deck.
The bulbous-nosed EA6B Prowler normally lands at a speed of about 140 mph on the carrier, where its tail hook is snagged by a series of four wires stretched across the deck. Navy officials said yesterday that they did not know whether the plane missed the wires as it came in to the right of the center line on the deck of the carrier.
But on the basis of reports from the Nimitz, Navy officials said the Prowler evidently clipped the wings of several aircraft parked on the right edge of the deck before slamming into a cluster of parked planes near the bow.
The crash occurred at 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, when the 92,000-ton Nimitiz was conducting night training exercises 60 miles off Jacksonville, Fla.
"As far as I know, weather was not a factor," said Cdr. Jim Lois, a spokesman for Naval Air Force of the Atlantic.
Cdr. Ken Pease, a Navy spokesman at Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk, said Navy firemen fought the blaze for 70 minutes with chemical foam. "This fire was substantial," he said. "When we say substantial, it's a big fire."
The Nimitz, which launched the helicopters for the unsuccessful attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran last year, suffered no major damage, according to the Navy. The ship's nuclear power plant also was undamaged, the Navy said.
A team of doctors was airlifted from the Navy base at Jacksonville to the Nimitiz to help treat the injured in the carrier's sick bay. Others suffering burns and lacerations were flown off the ship to hospitals in Florida.
Four men were burned so badly that they were being flown to the burn unit at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, according to Brooke spokesman Jerry DuBois.
The electronic-warfare version of the Grumman A6 carries a crew of four. The Navy did not disclose last night whether any of them survived the crash.
Besides the Prowler, Navy spokesman Pease said three F14 fighters, which cost about $30 million each at current prices, were destroyed in the crash. Another F14 and four A7 attack planes were heavily damaged, he added, while one F14, five A7s, one A6, three S3 helicopters and one H3 helicopter received minor damage.
Although the Navy grounded A6s in the United States briefly last year after seven crashes in three months killed 14 crewmen, the service said after an analysis that there was no pattern to the accidents suggesting flaws in the plane.
Asked yesterday for accident statistics comparing the A6 with other carrier planes, the Navy said the F4 in calendar 1980 experienced 1.47 accidents for every 10,000 hours of flying; the A6 1.02 and the F14, 0.67.
Capt. Sam Flynn, a veteran Naval aviator based at Oceana, Va., who knows the A6 well, theorized that the cause of the Nimitz accident was that "the guy had some degree of difficulty with lineup and hit the aircraft parked on the side. If you're within 15 feet of the center line, there would be no difficulty."