I had a better view of the accident than anyone else. It was June 4, 1985, taking off in formation on the wing of my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dixon (Dix) Kenny as we were heading off to deliver our first 4 CF-18 Hornets to Germany. It all went badly very quickly. Dix’s jet went off the end of the runway, he ejected as the jet exploded and luckily survived. The rest of our formation came back to land and deal with the ensuing chaos. It was a dreadful start to our deployment to Europe, but I would learn a lot from that day.
Dix was in the lead jet, and I was in the rear cockpit of the two-seat Hornet on his wing. My squadron mate, Captain Bill Motriuk, was in the front cockpit. We were lined up on the long runway at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Cold Lake, Alberta. 1000 feet behind us were 3 other Hornets, the second pair (plus a spare jet), all headed for CFB Goose Bay, Labrador on the east coast to land, planning to stay overnight then fly 4 jets to CFB Baden-Soellingen, Germany the following day. Our air refueling tanker, a Boeing 707, had just taken off from the other runway, full of fuel, with technicians, support personnel and aircraft spare equipment on board. The 707 lifted off and arced out to the east. We rolled down the runway in formation, loaded with 3 external fuel tanks + 2 live AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on the wing tip rails.
It was to be a big day for the Canadian fighter force. This was the first official deployment of the CF-18s to replace our three CF-104 German-based squadrons with Hornets. The Canadian media was in Cold Lake that day to capture it all. I recall TV cameras around as we packed the jets, manned up, started, and taxied.
As with any deployment, we were all ‘Asses and Elbows’, scrambling to get everything done in time. My squadron mate, Captain Paul Nowak, and I were moving to Germany, permanently. That meant closing Canadian bank accounts, packing all our stuff, getting it boxed to ship overseas, and shutting down life in Canada as we were being posted to Germany for the next many years. I was in the two-seater where there was no room to store any of my clothing or gear. All my stuff, and every important piece of paper about my life, was loaded in Dix Kenny’s jet, stacked behind the ejection seat and also in an empty Bay, (Door 14 Left for Hornet pilots) where the electronic warfare jammer system was supposed to go (but was empty because Canada didn’t have any jammers yet). Everything including Canada Savings Bonds, birth certificate, bank records… all of it in his jet… don’t ask…I was a 26-year-old captain and dumb as dirt back then.
We released brakes, selected the afterburners, and accelerated alongside Dix’s jet. I sat in the back and watched. Our jet lifted off, Bill raised the landing gear, and we continued to accelerate. Dix’s jet did not get airborne. We were in formation, gear up, in afterburner and he was still on the runway. His nose gear was on the ground, but the main wheels were fully extended and off the ground. It looked like he was wheel barrowing. At some point during our takeoff roll, the 3 Hornets behind us started their takeoff in a Vic formation (lead aircraft with one on each side in formation) …again, don’t ask…in this day and age, no one could possibly imagine 3 aircraft taking off in formation but back then it seemed normal. They also started their takeoff roll without waiting for the front 2 aircraft to be airborne…which would never happen today…more old school techniques that don’t exist anymore.
Soon we were racing ahead of Dix, and he clearly was not going flying. He decided to abort the takeoff, late and at a very, very high speed. The arresting cable was strung 1000 feet from the departure end of the runway. Dix cut his throttles, dropped the arrestor hook hoping that it would catch the arresting cable to stop his jet and applied full brakes. The effect of braking hard forced the jet to lean forward depressing the nose gear which raised the hook off the ground. As a result, he ran over the arresting cable and missed engaging it (because the hook was in the air). The 3-ship behind was committed to take off and their Leader called out on the radio something about whether Dix was aborting his takeoff but heard nothing back. They continued their takeoff as it was too late to abort by that point. Years later, I would tell the story that they had to do a ‘Blue Angel’s Bomb-burst’ (reference to the US Navy aerobatic team) to avoid the explosion and ejection.
Dix’s jet raced off the end of the runway. He would tell us that he saw a culvert coming up and pulled the ejection seat handle. The jet hit the ditch and exploded at the same time as his ejection seat pushed him out of the fireball. The jet stirred up dirt and dust as it went off the runway. When the explosion happened, it was obscured by that dust so the TV camera views of it were much different than what I saw looking back at it from the front view. I saw his parachute and him landing on the ground away from the fireball. We knew he was alive but had no other details. Our problem was now being airborne with 4 Hornets, full of fuel, clearly not going to Goose Bay and a 707 Tanker also full of gas, personnel, and equipment. We climbed away, dumped as much fuel as we could, returned to Cold Lake, landed, and taxied back to our squadron. I recall Dix being recovered and brought back by the squadron to show his wife, Lucille and two kids, that he was alive before being taken to the Base Hospital. He had hurt an ankle but was otherwise OK.
We shut down our jets, climbed out, unpacked, and tried to work through the chaos of what to do next. I don’t remember much except that we were at our squadron all afternoon and evening and at some point, stopped by the hospital to visit with Dix. The wreckage was out past the end of the runway. No one could get near it because of the graphite epoxy material that had burned which would have been toxic and harmful to us. Specialist crews had been sent out to the crash to recover the aircraft data recorders so the experts could figure out what had really happened to prevent Dix from getting airborne. There were 2 live AIM-9 missiles on the jet, and I learned that the EOD experts were going out to the wreckage to detonate the missiles. Those missiles could not be offloaded from the jet and would be a danger to anyone out there. I got word to that crew that everything in my life was in the back of the cockpit and stuffed into Door 14 Left. I asked that the luggage, papers, and binders be recovered before they blew up the missiles and damaged the airplane. I still remember the detonations that evening as the crews exploded the missiles after my stuff was recovered. Remarkably, nothing was damaged. The luggage stuffed behind his ejection seat smelled like Cordite but the accordion files in Door 14 Left were not burned, melted or scarred…Don’t ask me how.
Our mission was crucially important to Canada’s NATO commitment, and we scrambled to replan how to get the jets to Germany. We added our spare jet to the formation, rebriefed and left the next day for Goose Bay and then on to Europe, arriving a day later than expected. The arrival antics, planned for us by the CF-104 pilots, had faded but they had new jokes to play on us following our takeoff accident. Our Commanding Officer recovered, eventually moved to Europe with his family and we established the CF-18 presence as part of Canada’s contribution to NATO.
So what happened?
For CF-18 Hornet pilots, pressing the T/O (takeoff) TRIM button on the ground moves the two rudders to face inward (called rudder tow-in) and presets the horizontal tails at 4° Nose Up to give more surface deflection to rotate the jet to get airborne. These takeoff trim functions originate from very early F/A-18 prototype testing where the jet would not rotate on takeoff. At heavier gross weights, like we were with 3 external fuel tanks, the aircraft technical manual (called Aircraft Operating Instructions (AOIs) in Canada) recommended additional Nose Up trim setting. Our Weapons and Tactics Officer, Captain Andre ‘Kermit’ Viens, researched this and told us all to set 8° Nose Up vice 4° Nose Up trim which would give us better nose authority to rotate on takeoff.
That action meant pressing the T/O TRIM button (on the cockpit left side console – see Photo 1) and then biasing the trim by pressing the Trim switch on the control stick further from 4° Nose Up to 8° Nose Up in the jet.
Photo 1 – CF-18 Cockpit with T/O TRIM Button on left side console
There was a small number on a matrix on the flight control screen of one of the cockpit displays (see Photo 2) to set that number and an arrow to show whether the horizontal tails (called STABS on the cockpit display) were canted up or down. This was a new step for us to set at some point before takeoff. If I recall correctly, we had done this only once before on a practice aerial refueling flight and Dix was not on that mission.
Photo 2: CF-18 Flight Control System Display
I wasn’t in Dix’s cockpit, so I don’t know exactly how it happened but instead of setting 8° Nose Up, he trimmed to 8° Nose Down (the wrong way). I have since timed that action. It takes 6.8 seconds to activate the Trim switch on the control stick and move the trim from the preset of 4° Nose Up to 8° Nose Down. It turns out that with 8° Nose Down trim on the ground, a pilot will pull back on the control stick to fly away but cannot generate enough nose up rotation for the jet to get airborne. No matter how fast Dix was going, there was never going to be enough horizontal tail to allow him to fly away.
Following this accident, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 guidance would become 12° Nose Up when the T/O TRIM button was pressed because you can’t set 12° Nose Down (unlike at 8°) hence there could never be a mismatch and repeat of Dix’s mistake. The great irony is that the original setting of 4° Nose Up takeoff trim worked just fine and if ‘Kermit’ hadn’t thought of this new idea, the accident would never have happened.
So what did I learn from this:
Too Busy Reading the Press Clippings
Dix Kenny was vilified in the CF-18 and the greater Hornet community. Everyone in our fighter force knew the story and the Royal Australian Air Force pilots even renamed the T/O TRIM switch the ‘Kenny Switch’. Dix paid a dear and lifelong price for his mistake and while he was later promoted to Colonel, he was never going to move beyond that rank. He was a very keen and capable officer with a career that was headed for much higher rank but that one mistake cost him his future. Our fighter pilot world is very unforgiving at times.
But there is more to the story.
I was in the squadron, having witnessed it all, seeing the media attention and then the crash. In my mind, Dix’s error was caused by his distraction of media, with family watching, as he led his squadron and the Canadian Hornet fleet to Europe. It always was my impression that he lost his concentration leading to him setting the Takeoff Trim in the wrong direction. I came up with a saying that I have used all my career:
“He was too busy reading the press clippings.”
It has come to mean never to let myself be caught up by outside attention when I am flying. I was very judgmental about the event and wrong to ‘takeaway’ this saying from what really happened, but the effect served me very well over the many decades since. I remained forever extremely vigilant whenever there was media attention around me, I had seen firsthand what distraction could do and the consequences. I applied this guarded sense during my early CF-18 career including performances at the 1987 Paris Air Show, through all the flying around the world and certainly back at the 2017 Paris Air Show.
Lesson Learned – Don’t Get Distracted by the Outside World
As Safety Pilot – Pay Attention to Everything…Always.
Back in 1985, we called the Hornet the ‘plastic jet’. It was magical, invincible, and so much more sophisticated than our old 2nd Gen jets. We operated off long runways and while there was takeoff and landing data like an airliner has, we never used those numbers. The jet had so much power that it could take off with just one engine if needed and there was absolutely no reason to imagine any situation where a Hornet could not take off. We were so naïve back then…or just plain dumb. Our formation did not have rotation, takeoff or abort speeds that are standard for every airplane these days. While Dix had mis-set the Trim, he did not have takeoff abort speeds that would have ensured he aborted in time to stop on the runway.
Who noticed that the horizontal tails were set at 8° Nose Down vice 8° Nose Up? In his cockpit, Dix obviously didn’t.
In formation, the wingman aligns his jet with references on the side of the lead jet (Dix’s) and then lines up so that he is looking across the engine nozzles at the back of Lead’s jet. That means that Bill Motriuk and I were looking right at Dix’s horizontal tails which would be canted up slightly (the wrong way) instead of down (as they should have been). Neither of us noticed this. Bill was busy checking out our jet’s systems, finishing the pre-takeoff checks and getting ready to take off in formation. I was in the back seat as the observer, yet I failed to pick up on Dix’s missed trim setting. How did I miss seeing the horizontal tail? Everyone blamed Dix but I failed him as his safety observer.
I was a pilot not a passenger in that formation. I needed to be as vigilant as ever, making sure that every detail was taken care of and helping everyone else who was flying. Had I been sharp enough, I would have yelled on the radio to abort the takeoff so that he could have stopped in time. That was a very expensive lesson for me to learn and cost the Canadian taxpayer a perfectly good Hornet, 2 live missiles and nearly burned up every important piece of paperwork in my life.
I have had safety observers fail me also. During one of my practices at the 2017 Paris Air Show, I made a mistake and failed to light the afterburner during a non-standard airshow maneuver, started a vertical climb and then when the airspeed was very wrong, realized it, followed my safety gates, aborted the maneuver, lit the afterburner and salvaged the routine. But neither of my two safety observers were paying attention and never said anything. They were just like I had been with Dix Kenny.
Lesson Learned – Pay Attention to Everything…Always.
Everyone Makes Mistakes…Just Don’t Make the Big Ones
Dix Kenny made a mistake and could not correct it during the very short time of his takeoff, tried to stop…but failed. We calculate speeds to rotate the jet (pull back on the control stick) to take off and fly away. We have rules for when to abort a takeoff: when there is a Red Warning light, when there are Yellow Caution lights (less severe problem than with a Warning light), when there is a loss of thrust (i.e. when one engine fails) or when we hear something clearly wrong with the jet (Audible ‘bang’). In Dix’s case, none of those signals were present. The jet was working fine, there were no Red Warning or Yellow Caution lights, and he was clearly getting all the thrust expected from both engines. So what went through his head when he pulled back on the control stick and the jet did not fly away. At the speeds he was traveling (and accelerating in full afterburner), he was eating up runway and running out of time to figure things out. I do not know a single pilot in anyone’s air force who could have figured out the problem in time.
As I said in the opening, the fighter community vilified Dix for his mistake. He received zero support from fellow fighter pilots and was hung out to dry even though none of us would have analyzed the situation and reacted correctly either. It would have made ZERO sense why the plastic jet was not rotating and flying away with every indication that it should and would.
We learn early in our training that flying fighters is a world where relatively simple mistakes can have drastic, catastrophic consequences. Virtually every aircraft accident has a human factor element…meaning human error. In my 40 years flying fighters, I made mistakes on virtually every single flight except for a handful of perfect events. I always strived to learn each time and to not repeat mistakes from the past. In my case, the mistakes were ‘small’ and never led to a major incident or accident. My saying:
Others did not see it the same way. I have one peer who used to mock the mistakes of others but made a catastrophic mental error during an airshow practice that led to an ejection and crash of a fully functional jet. Decide which is worse, the small mistakes which you learn from or the big ones that crash planes and kill people.
Lesson Learned – It’s okay to make the small mistakes so that I do not make the big ones.
Trust Your Instincts
‘Kermit’ gave us a new trim setting and added a step to our start / taxi / takeoff pattern. No one could have known that setting it in the wrong direction could be a danger. The Canadian Hornet fleet was brand new, and we had never encountered even the remotest problem with takeoff issues to that point in time. It takes 6.8 seconds to trim the wrong way as Dix did. It takes 2.3 seconds to trim from 4° Nose Up to 8° Nose Up. I timed both…the difference is 6.8 seconds versus 2.3 seconds…a 4½ second mistake to change the rest of your life. Not a long series of mistakes, not a lifetime of bad habits but a single finger action that lasted 4½ seconds.
But it was a new step. I learned that whenever I change from my normal habit patterns, I need to pay special attention. I always go back and retrace the checklist steps to make sure that I did not miss something. And I learned to trust my instincts. When I sense that something is wrong, I check and recheck. I have learned that when and if I ignore those instincts…my intuition…I get in trouble.
Our world is so unforgiving. Dix’s mistake was a single finger action trimming the wrong way. I learned to be so careful when things were new or out of sequence and to trust that when the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, I check to see what is wrong. That second sense is always right and it’s always telling me that something’s out of place.
Lesson Learned – Trust your Instincts.
Final point – We all have events in our lives that don’t go according to plan. Make the choice to learn from them vice pointing fingers and blaming others. As the saying goes:
…none of us live long enough to make all the mistakes, so learn from other…