La Manga del Mar Menor (Murcia). August 26, 2019. 09.07 am Commander Francisco Marín Núñez, 43, takes off from the San Javier air base aboard a C-101 fighter for a training flight. The weather conditions are good, despite the presence of clouds at 1,800 feet (548.6 meters), suitable for visual flight.
Marín is an experienced pilot: an instructor at the General Air Academy, with 3,304 flight hours behind him, 1,442 on the C-101. It is the apparatus of the Eagle Patrol, the unit of exhibitions of the Air Force, of which he was part until the previous year, occupying the position of the solo, the one who performs the most risky stunts. His plane is ductile but already old: it entered service in 1980, when he was only four years old.
Mirlo 31 (aeronautical callsign of his flight) performs three visual circuits on the base before heading at 9.25 to a restricted area of airspace in front of La Manga, between Cabo de Palos and Isla Grosa. Marín flies alone in the aircraft, although it is a two-seater, and no other aircraft accompanies him.
Once in the assigned sector, perform different stunts, maneuvers with sudden changes in speed and height. Early risers watch the unexpected spectacle from the beach. Two of them record it with their mobiles.
At 9.38, the plane makes a vertical dive and, at the last moment, starts a comeback. Too late. The device brutally impacts against the water. The calls accumulate in the emergency telephone number 112. Someone thinks they have seen the pilot ejected and Defense suggests that he has been able to save himself, but the divers will finally recover his body from the seabed, with the help of the Navy ship Neptune.
The CITAAM (Commission for Technical Investigation of Military Aircraft Accidents), dependent on the Ministry of Defense, concludes that the pilot could not eject (parachute). To do this, he would have had to interrupt the maneuver with which he was trying to avoid the collision; “It is physically impossible to operate the launch ring without releasing the flight stick.”
The damaged model lacks a flight recorder (black box) so the flight parameters have not been preserved. In the communications he maintained with the control tower, the pilot did not report any breakdown or problem on board.
In the absence of a black box, the CITAAM relied on the photogrammetric analysis of the videos recorded by the witnesses. According to his conclusions, the commander “had little more than four seconds from the start of the collection [de la caída en picado] to avoid impact ”. The pilot, he adds, “was aware of the proximity” of the water, as he made “a very aggressive maneuver” to try to recover the device. But he lacked space. When he begins the maneuver to return to horizontality, he is 1,400 feet high (426.7 meters). “To have safely performed a collection maneuver, it should have started at least 2,000 feet (609.6 meters),” according to CITAAM. It almost succeeds: at the moment of impact, the aircraft is in a horizontal position and with positive pitch (nose up). If he listened to the report, he was 182.9 meters short.
María José Núñez, mother of Commander Marín, does not share that estimate. With the help of her colleagues, this retired doctor in physics has reviewed the CITAAM calculations, and has found so many errors that she would have suspended their authors if they had taken the exam at the University of Murcia, where she taught. Based on the graphs in the report, he concludes that his son “would have reversed the fall and recovered the loss [del avión] in less than a second, if I had had an extra altitude of only 35 feet. ” He lacked 10.6 meters to save himself.
The question is why an experienced pilot made a fatal miscalculation. According to the official report, it could be due, “with a high probability, to a momentary lack of situational awareness, due to the presence of clouds in the area.” To support his thesis, he points out that, during the dive, the captain corrected the lateral trajectory, to align himself with a visual reference, the coastline, and only after obtaining it, after two seconds, did he fully pull the elevator. That is, the commander became disoriented.
The CITAAM does not explain why. It is limited to verifying that the autopsy and the toxicological analyzes do not reveal the presence of any medical problem or toxic substance and it is ruled out that he suffered a fainting, since he never lost control of the device.
Then? The official report recognizes that “the altimeter of the front and rear cockpit did not mark the same numeral marking,” but it downplays this fact, claiming that the marking of both is independent. After testing in a specialized workshop, the CITAAM concluded that no evidence had been obtained that the front altimeter (the only one the pilot could see) was faulty, nor could it be determined what altitude each one marked at the time of the accident.
On the contrary, Marín’s mother maintains that the rear altimeter worked correctly, according to its own parameters, while the front one presented an error of more than 100 feet (30.5 meters), enough to have avoided the collision. In his opinion, “the malfunction of the altimeter is the most likely cause of the accident.” Until he descended under the clouds and saw the coastline, that instrument was the only reference Commander Marín had to know how high the water was.
From the reports sent to the court, the accusation deduces that the plane’s maintenance plan was not fulfilled, which forces the pipes to be washed with air every 300 hours and then to check the operation of altimeters, variometers and anemometers. Javier Martínez, the family’s lawyer, complains about the lack of collaboration of the Air Force, which delays the delivery of the documentation that is requested, sends another one different from that required or presents it to the end incomplete. On the contrary, a spokesman for the Air Force assures that “all the requirements of the Court have been promptly addressed.”
About two years after the death of her son, María José Núñez only demands one thing: “That a serious and rigorous investigation be made of what happened and no attempt is made to cover up with a botched job.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.