The ethics of ejection

Was it a bird?

We don’t know and the Navy is not saying. It is much too early in the investigation of today’s F-18 Hornet fighter crash into an apartment complex in Virginia Beach. A reporter postulated this feather-brained reason during a press briefing given by Navy Captain Mark Wisberger. Understandably, the most that the Navy brass will cop to is that the jet succumbed to “catastrophic mechanical malfunction” just minutes after it took off on a training mission from Naval Air Station Oceana in the coastal Virginia city about noon EST. Miraculously (and meant with a capital “M”), despite the fact the jet crashed directly into an apartment complex just a few miles from the Naval station, there were no fatalities. Witnesses reported that the jet appeared to have dumped most of its fuel in the moments before the crash. Guesses are that the quick-thinking pilots deliberately unloaded the fuel payload in order to minimize the ground damage after the plane they realized was going down, crashed. There is also a possibility the fuel spillage was a result of the mechanical anomaly which downed the plane. Nobody knows. The Navy is investigating the accident and we won’t know of specifics for a while.

In the screeching moments before the plane crashed into the apartment complex, the trainee and trainer both made the decision to eject themselves “safely” from the doomed jet. I say “safely” because ejecting from a spiraling fighter jet is no easy feat and not to be trivialized. When your life is one the line, you’ll endure some horrid shit just to live. I can’t blame either of the men. I would have done the same.

It made me wonder, though, about the ethics of such a decision. If you are piloting the doomed jet, do you go down while you expend your last efforts to avoid killing people on the ground, even if it means you will die? Neither of the Navy officers had any idea where their jet would strike, but the fact they were headed toward a populated area left little doubt that innocent people might very well lie in its doomed path.

What obligation do jet pilots have to go “down with the ship” in the futile hope of steering the uncontrollable ship clear of innocent ground dwellers without regard for their own safety? Did the pilots eject before they could prove they did everything to spare human life? Luckily, no one was killed. It all worked out in the end.

Everyone lived, story over. It is easier to gloss over heroic inaction or action when there is no carnage. Why question this? But I couldn’t help but to…question.

Imagine the fighter jet crashed into a nursery school and killed 25 children. What would we think then? The question would linger, wouldn’t it? It’s like Russian Roulette wrangling with a powerless plane that is descending into a population center. I like think good sense would forbid us from even building a nursery in the area. What if the apartment had been heavily occupied at the time and 25 adults had died. The loss of life would still have been tragic.

If the pilots stuck with their plane because they believed it their duty to live out a doomed mission for the sake of doing all in their power to spare innocent life, and still died fruitlessly because the apartment complex was empty, something they had no knowledge of…how would we feel about them then?

I have never “walked a mile in their shoes” but I can honestly say I would do the same thing the pilots did. I would eject the hell out of that plane, even if it was headed toward the faintest residential area. But I’m a pussy civilian. I”m not trained to fight or die.

I’m not pointing fingers, but I am questioning and pondering human motives under unimaginable stress.