NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ As he said goodbye to his parents at the airport, Navy fighter pilot John Stacy Bates told them to check out his takeoff.
His sleek F-14 Tomcat roared down the runway and rocketed away in a high-speed vertical takeoff, then plunged into a neighborhood and exploded in a fireball, killing both men on board and three people in a house.
Monday’s crash left shards of burned wreckage strewn across the quiet neighborhood, and as investigators were faced with questions about whether the pilot could have been showing off.
Before heading down the Nashville International Airport runway, the 33-year-old lieutenant commander asked for and received permission to make a high-performance takeoff.
That involves revving the engines to full speed before releasing the brakes, then switching on the afterburners, which pour extra fuel into the exhaust to give the engines a sudden boost in power. The plane rockets down the runway and climbs into the air at a nearly vertical angle.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said it was premature to discuss whether Bates’ takeoff was hot-dogging. Navy officials said such steep climbs are not unusual for pilots of high-powered military aircraft trying to clear a civilian airport’s airspace.
``It’s hard to say what the safest takeoff is, but there’s nothing inherently dangerous about a maximum performance takoff,″ he said.
Lt. Patrick Moore, spokesman from Bates’ squadron at Miramar Naval Air Station, San Diego, said maximum performance takeoffs are not particularly dangerous.
Bates was flying back to Miramar after a training flight layover to visit his parents in Chattanooga.
It was not his first crash. Bates lost another F-14 Tomcat during a routine training mission last April.
In that case, Bates’ F-14 and a second Navy fighter took off from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln west of Hawaii in an exercise designed to teach evasive maneuvers, said Moore at Miramar.
Bates’ fighter, the lead aircraft, stalled and went into a flat spin. He and another crewman ejected safely. ``He lost control,″ Moore said. ``They ejected because he couldn’t recover control.″
A subsequent investigation blamed Bates for the loss of the plane but after a review, he was cleared to resume flying.
While investigators said it wasn’t unusual for a pilot to be involved in two accidents, they were questioning the families of both crew members.
``It will include an interview with the family and anyone else,″ said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brent Bennitt. ``Typically the aircraft mishap board will build a profile for the previous 72 hours.″
``We’re interested in a physical and psychological profile so we can have some idea of what the pilot’s and air crew’s physical and mental makeup were at the time of take-off,″ Bennitt said. ``We have no reason to be concerned about that _ it’s normal procedure.″
The accident Monday was the 30th crash of an F-14 since 1991, including 11 in 1993, five in 1994 and seven in 1995, the Navy said.
The crash also was the fourth in the last 16 months for the VF213 Squadron, to which Bates was assigned. After the crash, the squadron was ordered to stop flying until further notice, a routine procedure.
The fighter hit the brick home where Ewing T. Wair, 53, was visiting Elmer Newsom, 66, and his wife, Ada, 63. Bates and his radar intercept officer, Lt. Graham Alden Higgins, 28, were killed as were Wair and the Newsoms.
When the plane crashed, the pilot’s parents, Les and Peggy Bates, were at a Nashville restaurant sipping coffee. They heard the sirens of fire engines and saw smoke billowing from the nearby airport and thought perhaps a warehouse had exploded, said Maura Phillips, a family friend.
As soon as the couple learned that a Navy fighter had crashed, they knew their son was aboard because his was the only F-14 at the airport, said neighbor Marsha Hyman in Chattanooga, about 110 miles southeast of Nashville.