How the Marine Corps Failed Squadron 242

Marine Capt. Jahmar Resilard just fell
15,000 feet after ejecting from his fighter jet. He’s alive, but adrift in the
Pacific Ocean, miles from anywhere. He has a radio, a life raft and a location beacon and every reason to believe that he will be rescued. Resilard’s jet crashed midair during a refueling exercise off the coast of Japan. Records show that Resilard and his
fellow Marines were set up to fail in the weeks and months before the crash. ProPublica conducted interviews and obtained thousands of pages of internal documents, many of them confidential, to piece together what happened. The mission was part of a week of around-the-clock flying that would test readiness for war with North Korea. The plan was for two F/A-18 Hornets to take off, refuel off a tanker in midair and then land again. Pilots must fly constantly to keep their skills sharp. The minimum number of flight hours for
maintaining proficiency is about 16 a month. Squadron 242’s aviators were down
to about 6. Squadron commander James Compton had been warning his superiors for months. But nothing changed. If you lack the ability to have the people to work on the airplanes and the parts to maintain
airplanes, then you can’t generate a meaningful flight hour. If you can’t generate a meaningful flight hour, you can’t hit the key skills in order to keep an air crew proficient. His pilots were getting rusty. Two thirds of their jets were out of commission. If war broke out, they weren’t qualified to handle most of their core tasks, like taking out a
target in enemy territory. On the night of the crash, the fighter jets approached the tanker for refueling. They need night-vision goggles to see in
the moonless dark, but theirs were prone to blurring and sudden inverting. Problems were so common the Air Force recommended that model not be fielded at all. Capt. Resilard, along with his weapons
officer, Capt. Austin Smith, are in the second jet, Profane 12. Resilard wasn’t ready for this mission. His nighttime refueling qualification had expired. But because of a glitch in the Marine Corps tracking system, nobody knew. Capt. Jahmar Resilard was not a pilot who was haphazard in his approach to anything. He was not a cavalier man. Yeah, he walked with swagger, but he was not careless. Flying over 280 miles per hour, they connect to the hoses at the back of the tanker. Once they finish refueling, the lead jet,
Profane 11, disconnects first. Standard procedure would call for Resilard to join profane 11 on the right side of the tanker and depart from there. But Capt. James Wilson, the lead pilot, throws a curve ball. He directs Resilard to stay left. Later, Wilson asked the tanker to shift
to the left too, away from him and closer to Resilard. Then Resilard’s plane makes an unexpected move… crossing over the tanker. There’s almost no time that I can think of where that would be a normal thing to do. Whenever you cross, it’s always
underneath. It’s not known why Resilard drfits. It’s possible he panics or is simply disoriented or exhausted. Marine Corps protocol recommends pilots be given up to four weeks to adjust sleep schedules to flying at night. Compton’s pilots had just a few days. That night, they were so impaired by fatigue it was like they had a blood-alcohol level above the legal driving limit. Suddenly Resilard corects back,
soaring down and to the left, straight for the tanker. From the other jet, Wilson sees the sparks from Resilard and Smith ejecting. Then, nothing but flames. The five Marines on the tanker are trapped. The entirety of the the Sumo crew, KC-130
team, did not survive. Wilson radios Japanese flight control for help. Japanese defense forces can launch
rescue operations in 15 minutes. But Marine Corps leaders didn’t ask them
to be on alert, so they weren’t. Meanwhile, Resilard and Smith are parachuting down, falling for about 20 minutes. The water is 68 degrees. At that temperature, you can last anywhere between two and seven hours before you lose consciousness. From that point on, it’s a race against the elements and time, and just your ability to survive whatever it is that you just went through, which in this case was a pretty catastrophic collision. Resilard is in bad shape. Blood is pooling on his brain. He can’t get his radio to work. The Marine Corps hadn’t set it to automatically transmit location. He inflates his raft, but can’t pull himself aboard. His neck is injured and he’s at
risk of drowning. Resilard turns on his Garmin watch, tracking his heart rate, and waits. Two and a half hours after the crash, the
first Japanese rescue helicopter takes off — more than 200 miles away. Then, one of the helicopters spots Smith, the weapons officer, or WSO. We had a call and it says, “Hey, one of the the… the WSO has been found.” “He’s alive, he’s OK and we’re bringing him back.” They shouldn’t be that far apart. It’s the other frustrating thing here. OK, we know where we found one. You know, the ejection sequence is only
like a third of a second apart. The winds and the conditions would be very similar. So, you’re thinking, “Got to be somewhere close.” It was like, “Why, why can’t we find
Capt. Resilard?” In the seat of every fighter jet, there’s a location beacon. Its purpose is to send out location information so missing aircrew can be rescued. Resilard’s beacon malfunctioned in the water, sending no signal. In at least two previous accidents, this model stopped working when submerged in water. Senior Marine Corps leaders knew the beacon was flawed, but did nothing. So the squadron purchased its own replacements. But just weeks before, the Marine Corps banned them, saying they were unauthorized. It’s difficult to find somebody in the water who isn’t signaling. Without a signal to follow, the rescue planes aimlessly scan the Pacific below. The only thing that you can probably see above the water is their helmet. It’s gonna look like a speck of dust out there on a big dark sea. Nine hours after the crash, a Japanese
Coast Guard ship spots Resilard, but the waves are too strong and the ship’s deck too high to safely pull him in. They call another ship. At 11:30, Resilard’s heart stops. Less than an hour later, a rescue ship
finally pulls Resilard’s body aboard. I believe that had we had a quicker
response time we’d at least have had a chance to get into some medical attention and given him a chance. Six Marines died in a crash that was
caused by a crew that was dangerously fatigued, that wasn’t granted the minimum
required hours of ongoing training, that wasn’t qualified for the risky maneuver, that was sent out without search and rescue on alert and was forced to use faulty equipment. The Marine Corps’ public investigation blamed the crew for being reckless in the air that night. They said Compton created nonchalant
attitudes towards safety and they attacked the squadron’s character, citing unprofessional behavior like taking selfies in the cockpit and unrelated conduct like off-duty drinking and a case of adultery. The investigation didn’t mention the squadron’s ignored pleas for help or the faulty beacon. and essentially absolved senior leaders of responsibility. Compton was relieved of his duties four
months later. The United States Marine Corps, an organization which I have loved and devoted my life to… I want to make sure that it learns from this tragedy. It has to. I do blame myself. I will always blame myself. So, you know, you relieve me of command, it’s OK. But it didn’t fix the problem. The only thing preventing another thing like this from occurring is frankly luck. Oh

10 thoughts on “How the Marine Corps Failed Squadron 242

  1. ProPublica is an example of excellent journalism! I've been following you guys for months, can't believe how underrated you guys are.

  2. After reading this story I just don't understand where our tax dollars go. We have increased the military budget dramatically in the last couple of years. Yet there's no money to make sure one of our front line combat-ready squadrons can have the minimum number of pilots, mechanics, spare parts and to timely replace known faulty equipment? Where exactly is the money going?

  3. Something is really suspicious about the the malfunctions and scheduling the Marines faced. The people who vow to protect Americans are betrayed by their own leaders.

  4. Gee, all that money in a defense budget and they're still short of money- what's wrong with this picture/story ???? ( btw, if you like unsolved mysteries look back at that "accident" involving a Marine Corps jet and an Italian ski-lift back in 19??)

  5. Having been in USMC aviation for 22 years, I would say Pro Publica is spot on. Asia operations have always been the "end of the line" for personal and parts. Make mission at any cost has always been the mantra and what separates the USMC from other services, not a bad thing when you have all the support needed. Years of over extension in the Middle East have taken their toll, much experience has "hit the road" leaving a void. One thing will never change, senior personal will never take a hit…shit rolls downhill.

  6. What ever happened to the creed, the values, and the motto?
    Pathetic corps….you have failed.
    The witch hunt panel needs to be stripped of rank.
    The commander in chief should be ashamed this happen on his watch.

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