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The Los Angeles Times October 19, 2005

A Super Hornet's Nest

War veteran Richard Webb stirred up trouble when he buzzed an airport. The reaction shows how much times have changed.

By James Ricci

SAN LUIS OBISPO — At a quarter past noon on Jan. 21, a U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter flown by a combat-tested pilot named Richard Webb appeared over the Edna Valley and streaked toward San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

On its first pass, the Super Hornet screamed along at more than 650 miles an hour, just 96 feet above the main runway. Soon it circled back, touched down on the tarmac for an instant, then went into a steep climb, afterburner roaring, and disappeared in the skies.

Blake Medeiros, a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who fuels planes at the airport, was in his employer's office when he heard the jet. He ran outside and clambered atop a 15,000-gallon fuel tank to watch. He had seen such displays of aerial might at air shows. But for such a sight to appear out of nowhere during his workday was awe-inspiring.

Ernie Sebby was in his house less than a mile from the airport. He ran to the front porch and caught a glimpse of the aircraft. It appeared to be painted in gray primer. He could make out no identifying numbers.

A former volunteer at airport community functions and an erstwhile recreational pilot, the 77-year-old retired corrections officer guessed that the plane was a surplus military jet fighter flown "by some guy that's got more money than brains."

Sebby immediately recalled an incident in Sacramento in September 1972, when an inexperienced civilian pilot crashed a decommissioned Korean War-era F-86 Sabre jet into an ice cream parlor, killing 12 children and 10 adults.

Martin Pehl was in the washroom of the airport's administrative offices near the terminal. For a moment, Pehl, the airport's assistant manager, thought that he was feeling an earthquake.

Then he and nearly everyone else bailed out of the building to see what was happening. He saw the jet fighter's afterburner afire as the aircraft climbed into the sky.

The Federal Aviation Administration designation for the airspace above the airport is Class D, meaning that it has a speed limit of 230 mph below 2,500 feet. "Oh boy, we're in trouble," Pehl thought. "We've got a real PR issue…. "




Like the turbulent wake of a jet, the incident's impact spread outward, with severe consequences for Webb's aviation career.

George "Bud" Day, a Vietnam-era combat fighter pilot and Medal of Honor winner, recalled a time when military aviators were entitled to occasional displays of thrilling bravado.

"Back in the old days, I used to fly by my house on the way back from an exercise and give a little toot on the afterburner just so my wife would know I was on the way home," he said.

Webb's case, however, demonstrates how far fighter pilot culture has evolved.

An important factor is the greater cost and sophistication of today's jet fighters. Although the Super Hornet's cost is often cited in the media as about $60 million apiece, Department of Defense figures collected by the authoritative defense policy group globalsecurity.org place it at about $95 million, when development costs are included and the price is calculated in current dollars.

"The weapons systems today are so complex from an engineering and science point of view that the old idea of who a fighter pilot is has changed," said John Sherwood, a historian for the Navy.

"Right now the ones who make it are perfect physical specimens, and they tend to be engineers, people with a strong math and science background. In the Vietnam War you would still get a lot of people who'd played football and were jocks and brave guys who were willing to risk their lives to fly very unsafe aircraft off of very unsafe ships. But that's changing."

Along with the changes in the aircraft, several highly publicized accidents and the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which numerous Navy fliers were disciplined for wild drunkenness and overt sexual harassment, have helped shift the culture, as has the emergence of female fighter pilots, Sherwood said.

Darrel Whitcomb, an aviation historian and retired Air Force colonel who flew jet fighters for two decades, including three tours of combat duty in Vietnam, said current standards reflect "a new level of maturity. The level of professionalism has gotten progressively higher."

In today's environment, Sherwood said, there is little tolerance "for misbehavior in any way, whether it's flying an aircraft outside the flight plan or having a few beers in the officers' club."

The Navy tradition, he said, is to give a ship's captain or aircraft pilot a great deal of responsibility and autonomy, but to countenance not even the smallest mistake. The Navy "has a reputation for eating its children…. If you mess up, there are no second chances."




San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport once practically had been Richard Webb's second home. In 1992, as a sophomore at Cal Poly, he got a job with an aviation service company at the airport. He drove fuel trucks, pumped gas, swept hangars, washed planes and became enthralled with flying. Every dollar he earned, after he paid rent and tuition, went to flight lessons.

"While driving the fuel truck around the airport, the highlight of my day would be when a military fighter jet seemingly appeared out of nowhere and made a high-speed low pass over the runway," he wrote in a widely distributed e-mail months after the incident.

"Talk about motivation for a growing pilot, I'd have a grin on my face for hours after that. Because they seemed to just appear out of nowhere with such force and thunder, these flybys had lasting impressions on me."

After graduation from college, Webb became a U.S. Navy aviation officer. He flew F-14 Tomcat jet fighters in combat over Afghanistan and Iraq, taking off from the deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise.

In January, he was based temporarily at Lemoore Naval Air Station in the San Joaquin Valley, where he was learning to fly the Super Hornet, the Navy's successor to the Tomcat. Sometimes he drove to the San Luis Obispo airport to visit and fly with old friends.

One of those friends was Mike Dacey, his former employer at the airport and the owner of a decommissioned Czech jet fighter-trainer. Dacey was astonished by the skill that Webb's multimillion-dollar military training had given him. Of his career as a Navy aviator, Webb told him: "Mike, I love this so much I can't believe they're paying me to do it. I'd do it for free."

In Medeiros, whom he had met on one of his visits, Webb saw himself at an earlier age. He later wrote about how the younger man was "putting himself through school, driving fuel trucks, learning to fly, wants to fly military jets … talk about a spitting image of myself 13 years ago," Webb wrote in the e-mail. "He'd seem to hang on every word I said and I enjoyed telling him stories and giving him pointers for how to get accepted to flight school."

On Jan. 21, Webb checked out an F-18 Super Hornet at the Lemoore base for a training flight, to add to the 14.8 hours he had logged in the aircraft's cockpit. His superiors assumed that he would fly to a designated military training area above Sequoia and Death Valley national parks, 100 miles to the east.

Webb had other ideas.

"When I made a quick decision to fly down to my old airport and do a flyby, you can imagine what I was thinking…. " Webb wrote. "I could now be the guy who seemed to explode out of nowhere doing a high-speed afterburner pass, leaving a lasting impression on a young kid. Talk about the circle being completed…."




Minutes after Webb's flight, telephone console lights in the airport administrative offices blazed. "Everybody heard it — the whole city heard it," said airport manager Klaasje Nairne. "The phone rang off the hook … it rocked our world."

About half an hour after the plane departed, Sebby e-mailed Nairne, asking her to find out the plane's identity. He expressed concern that "the tremendous noise generated will set airport and community relations back years."

After airport officials got in touch, the Navy convened an evaluation board to consider Webb's conduct. Webb admitted performing the flyby and knowing that it was against the rules. The board also reviewed two other incidents in Webb's past which, in the Navy's view, involved questionable judgment by the aviator.

Upon learning of the threat to Webb's career, San Luis Obispo airport officials expressed concern about the reaction they had sparked. On Feb. 15, Nairne wrote Webb's superiors that "it was never our intent to be a party to the end of this gentleman's naval aviation career." If that were the result, she wrote, "it would be most regrettable."

Although a superior officer acknowledged that Webb was "an energetic junior officer and talented aviator," the commander of the Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, Webb's home command, concluded that his flyby "merits termination of flying status."

Webb's wings were pulled. He was exiled to a desk job in Qatar in the Middle East, and left to ponder the four remaining years of his service commitment as a groundling.




Sebby's e-mail wasn't the only complaint the airport received, but Webb fixed on Sebby as the instigator of his problems.

On June 3, he sent an e-mail to Sebby, carbon-copying more than 30 friends and others in the aviation community. Webb told Sebby that his grounding was "a direct result of your indignant e-mail," which he characterized as "scathing."

In regard to his unauthorized flyby, Webb wrote, "No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they've never done the exact same thing."

Webb concluded that he was "not apologetic for what I did, and if given the chance, I'd do the same thing again…. It's just incredibly hard to admit fault, and accept such disproportionate punishment, to an action that probably helped recruit many young kids in town that day…. I feel ashamed to have my close friends die to protect your freedom to complain about how we do our job."

Webb's punishment has grieved his friends at San Luis Obispo airport.

Medeiros, who is 22 and plans to enter Marine Corps flight training next year, considered Webb a role model.

"To meet somebody who went to the same school as me and became a fighter pilot, it was very inspiring," he said. "I think he's a great guy."

Dacey, for whom Webb worked as a student, said it was difficult "to see him get hammered. Richard grew up here and he came back to show off a little bit. The kid's dream was to be a naval pilot, and the vast majority of people at the airport were proud of him."

After losing his wings, Webb appeared to be "in a state of shock," Dacey said. "If you wanted to see a kid who looked like he aged 20 years overnight — literally. He looked like he got run over by a train."

Dacey speculated that Webb didn't realize how much the San Luis Obispo area had changed in the near-decade since he had left for the Navy — the expanded population of the city, the amount of residential construction within earshot of the airport. "He'd been gone," said Dacey, whose principal business is as a building contractor. "He'd been in Iraq. He'd been in Afghanistan."

Sebby is not as sympathetic. Webb's missive brought down on him an avalanche of angry e-mails, and some anonymous, harassing phone calls. Sebby contacted Navy officials to complain of what he came to see as Webb's orchestration of a vilification campaign against him.

"I wasn't trying to prosecute anyone or get him fired or grounded," Sebby said in an interview. "I had no idea it was even a military aircraft. This thing he orchestrated against me … I want the Navy to know I'm not going to let this drop because I'm offended, deeply offended, by this."

In a recent letter to U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) and both of California's U.S. senators, Sebby demanded an apology from Webb and that it be disseminated to all recipients of Webb's original e-mail. He also called on the Navy to further punish Webb for "his harassment behavior against me."

Reached by e-mail in Qatar, Webb declined to be interviewed for this article.




Several military aviation experts who reviewed the evaluation board's report dispute Webb's assertion that flybys such as his are common today.

"I was very much floored when I read this report," said one former F-18 instructor who agreed to be interviewed but was under orders from a commander to not be quoted by name. "This was so far out of the realm of acceptability it's ludicrous…. What he did was practically unheard of, extremely unusual … 500 knots at 96 feet is way beyond his ability…. That's extreme poor judgment having only 14.8 hours" of flight time in an F-18. "This kid was an accident waiting to happen. It was a blessing they got to him before he killed somebody and that was something that was going to happen."

Webb's case illustrates the balance a modern fighter pilot must strike between aggressiveness and daring on the one hand, and tight adherence to discipline and procedure on the other.

"You want your young men and women to fly aggressively, fly tough, fly mean, so when you need them to do tough things, they can go into battle and win," Whitcomb said. "But that aggression has got to be properly tempered, so when it's not called for, it doesn't get them in trouble.

"Nowadays, you can't accept needless loss. This F-18, this is the top-of-the-line, multi-multimillion-dollar aircraft extremely capable of doing some really amazing things, and we want the young people we bring in to be able to do those extra things, but always under control and carefully directed because it's very easy to lose control of a jet like that."

The case also points up another dilemma: How tolerant should a civil society be toward a warrior whose behaviors have been influenced by the experience of fighting on its behalf?

"The kids we want to fight our battles for us are probably not the best in peacetime," said Dacey, "not the best flying over your local airport."

The problem, Sherwood said, is hardly new.

"If you take the king's shilling and go to war, you put yourself in harm's way and you've fulfilled the ultimate contract with the military. He did that and he may have felt a certain level of entitlement. Maybe we're being too strict in our treatment of officers. You can't ask a bunch of altar boys to fight a war."


Copyright 2005, Los Angeles Times