A Navy Mishap you probably did not hear about.

The news was pretty well saturated over the last couple of weeks. What with Charlottesville, the firing ( well-deserved) of Steve Bannon, the collision of USS John McCain and President Trump’s incredibly tone deaf responses to all of those happenings, you may not have had a chance to notice this little tidbit of news.

A civilian pilot operating a contracted Hawker Hunter aircraft ejected off the coast near Point Loma and was rescued Tuesday, according to a U.S. Navy spokesperson.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson initially told NBC 7 the pilot had been with the U.S. Navy. Later, a Navy spokesperson confirmed the pilot was a civilian, contracted to help with training exercises.

The pilot ejected approximately 100 nautical miles off the coast, just south of Point Loma around 4:30 p.m.

The aircraft was providing support to the Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) for USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group.

The Hawker Hunter aircraft was operated by the defense contractor, Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), contracted to play the role of the enemy during COMPTUEX.

Fortunately, the pilot involved was rescued. Unfortunately for ATAC, it is their fifth mishap since 2010. ( Specifics at the bottom of the post). Of those mishaps, 3 have been fatal, killing the pilot.

The theory behind contracting these adversary air operations is simple.  It theory, it saves the Navy money; without a direct knowledge of what the Navy pays to contractors for this service, versus an amortized cost estimation of what Active Navy and Naval Reserve squadrons cost to operate-its apples vs oranges comparison to be able to prove it does. It definitely allows the Navy to reduce the number of pilots it needs, allowing it to farm its active duty pilots out to more “career enhancing jobs” that prepare them for promotion and eventual command.

For those folks who were around Naval Aviation for a while, I would point out that ATAC is essentially being contracted to do two main missions: Perform the Orange Air Services  that Fleet Electronic Warfare Support Group (FEWSG) ( and CVW’s in turnaround) used to do, and provide the adversary services that several Active VFC and Reserve VFC squadrons used to provide. Over the years from 2000 to present, the Navy, for a variety of reasons-none of them good-got rid of many of these organizations. ( The Navy still has three reserve VFC squadrons: VFC-12, VFC-13 and VFC-111).It created a gap that needed to be filled and following the lead of Flight International Corporation, ATAC stepped in to fill it.

My purpose of this post is not to speculate on the aircraft practices of ATAC or the skill of its pilots. I happen to know for a fact their pilots are good-among some of the best the Navy has produced in the last 35 years. Others, who have a more detailed knowledge of what it takes to run a unique aviation company can write about that.

My purpose here is different: It is to point out clearly and unequivocally, that the Navy made a huge mistake “outsourcing” these services to a private contractor. VAQ-33 and 34 should still exist, as well as FEWSG and the VFC squadrons, both active and reserve. The Navy’s decision to downsize and get rid of them was penny wise and pound foolish. It is also worth pointing out that for air wings in turnaround, “orange air” sorties provided good training. Today, the OPTEMPO and surge requirements don’t permit that, I am quite sure. But back in the day, they were fun dets to go on to Roosy Roads.

Now I know the Navy was in both a billet crunch and a money crunch in the early 90’s and again after the foolish decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  ( Especially as it had to feed “Harvey’s hostages” IA machine). But not everything is about money. By getting rid of these outfits, they deprived aviators of good shore duty flying jobs that built their flight hours, enhanced their experience level and gave them flying expertise to take back to the fleet. In line with the previous post, the billets at these outfits could be an investment in the Navy’s future. For the reserves-it provided a good way to retain experienced talent and offer flying opportunities to the reserve force. ( As did the reserve Air Wings and Reserve Maintenance Units-regarding the latter, I have personal knowledge and scars from when the reserve force did away with them in 2002/2003). Training is training, and for a young junior officer, it’s better to have as many of them as you can spare in a cockpit somewhere. As I have said before, flying is a young man’s game and better to use them while the time is still available. As I have also pointed out before, a slowing down of the career path by a couple of years would buy time for those folks who will stick around to get the variety of experiences that you want them to have.

Not to mention, that the folks at FEWSG got good at what they did and it showed in the quality of the EW training they provided. The EC-135 and the Whales could knock your socks off on your radar if not careful.

You get what you pay for. “Outsourcing” of opposition air makes for a good deal for a small cadre of pilots, but what does it do for retention of Navy pilots in the long run? Not everything is about money, and as the USAF is finding out, the reason you are losing pilots is that when the fun goes away-no amount of money makes it worthwhile. Not today-not when the Navy and the other services are facing the prospect of war without end.  Training and flying for pilots is worth investing in.

***Summary of ATAC Mishaps*****

ATAC A-4 (A-4L) crash at Fallon:
July 8, 2010
NTSB Preliminary Report

ATAC Kfir crash at Fallon (fatal):
March 6, 2012
NTSB Probable Cause
NTSB Full narrative

ATAC Hunter crash at Point Mugu/Ventura Country/Camarillo (fatal):
May 18, 2012
NTSB Preliminary Report

ATAC Hunter crash at Point Mugu/Ventura Country/Camarillo (fatal):
October 29, 2014
NTSB Preliminary Report

ATAC Hunter crash at sea off Point Loma

August 22, 2017


Unrelated to ATAC

Air USA lost an ex-Korean Hawk at Yuma

11 March 2015



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It's not easy being me-but the adventures I get to have- make it totally worth it. "One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny."- Bertrand Russell

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