Kara Spears Hultgreen

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Kara S. Hultgreen at the age of 29 in front of an F-14A

Kara Spears Hultgreen (born October 5, 1965 in Greenwich , Connecticut , † October 25, 1994 in the Pacific Ocean , 50 miles off the coast of San Diego ) was the first female fighter pilot in the United States Navy in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat . She was killed on October 25, 1994 when her jet got out of control after an engine failure while approaching the USS Abraham Lincoln and crashed into the sea.

Childhood and youth

Kara Hultgreen was the youngest daughter of the former ice hockey player Tor Hultgreen and his wife Sally, a law graduate. Since her father, who worked as a broker for wood products, was often transferred, Kara grew up in different places. In her junior year in high school, after giving a presentation on the space program, Kara decided she wanted to become an astronaut . She enrolled in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas and earned her bachelor's degree in 1987.

Officer and flight training

Hultgreen joined the US Navy and, after extensive physical and mental tests, was admitted to the Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola . Their performance was in the top 10 percent of the last training classes. She left school after 14 weeks on November 6, 1987 with the rank of Ensign .

The basic flight training took place in Corpus Christi on turboprop machines of the type Beechcraft T-34C instead. The assessment acquired here decided on its further aviation use in the navy. Hultgreen continued her training from August 1988 in Beeville with the training squadron VT-26 with North American T-2C Buckeyes . An important part of jet training was practicing carrier landings. These landings were first rehearsed on land "on dry land" before the students were allowed to fly to a ship, the training aircraft carrier USS Lexington . On January 26, 1989, Hultgreen earned the Carrier Qualification for the T-2C Buckeye . Further training took place in the Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk and also concluded with the Carrier Qualification . In August 1989, Kara Hultgreen was the 18th woman to receive her pilot's needle (the wings ) in Beeville .

For women, the options for further use were limited, as they were not allowed to be used in combat squadrons due to existing laws. Hultgreen had hoped to become an instructor on the F / A-18 Hornet until the law changed, but the places were short and all occupied. Instead, she was assigned to the VAQ-33 "Firebirds" squadron for tactical electronic warfare in Key West to fly the EA-6 Prowler there.

The future deployment in the EW squadron initially meant extensive training in electronic warfare, which in turn took place in Pensacola. This was followed by survival training in the Maine forests . From February 1990 she was trained on the A-6E at the NAS Oceana naval air base . However, since she would not fly in a combat squadron, weapon training, aerial combat maneuvers, and porter landings were eliminated from her curriculum, and compared to other A-6 pilots, she could gain little of the valuable flight experience. At the end of March 1990 she was transferred to the Key West base.

Key West

VAQ-33 was one of three so-called "aggressor units " that were used to train aircraft carrier crews in electronic warfare . A large number of different aircraft types were flown for this purpose, including models such as the EA-6A , ES-3A Viking , EP-3 Orion and EA-7L Corsair II . All planes had been equipped for electronic warfare. The fact that the aircraft had come to the squadron from different sources, some were modernized and some were not, meant that hardly any aircraft looked like the other in terms of equipment. In general, the EA-6A was regarded as the "home" for all female Navy pilots until it was retired, as long as they were not yet allowed to be assigned to task forces.

Unlike their colleagues in the US Air Force , naval aviators also have a "ground job". Kara Hultgreen was a press officer. The work was not fundamentally different from the typical tasks of a combined marketing / PR department in a commercial enterprise. In addition to maintaining contact with the press, the two-woman press office of VAQ-33 also had to organize various relay life events.

On January 27, 1991, Hultgreen took over the leadership of a formation for the first time. In addition to Hultgreens EA-6A, an ERA-3B "Whale" and two Hornets were included. The machines were supposed to train with the carrier group of the USS Forrestal . The company ended in fiasco when the formation broke up as a result of a defective radio on the lead EA-6A. After all, the Forrestal received the all- important EW training before setting out for the Persian Gulf, and all aircraft returned safely to base.

Further mishaps cemented the image some of her male squad members had of Hultgreen. After she returned from Whidbey Island in May 1991 from the “Prowler Symposium”, the wings of her EA-6A had to be replaced because fuel leaked from many hairline cracks. This was a symptom of overloading the wings from too hard maneuvers. Hultgreen hadn't caused the cracks, but initially couldn't dispel the suspicion.

In July 1991, Hultgreen moved from the press office to the maintenance department. From then on she was responsible for the training of around 70 mechanics.


An EA-6B Prowler over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina

In early 1992, the prospect that VAQ-33 would be converted to F / A-18 Hornets was dashed. It turned out to be difficult, if not impossible, to attach the Navy's existing electronics containers to the Hornet. Instead, the squadron's EA-6A inventory would be increased and the old A-3 decommissioned. Around 1993 the squadron would then be disbanded and the tasks of the EW training squadrons should be taken over by the naval reserve with Grumman EA-6B Prowlers .

When landing in Pensacola on October 10, 1992, the right main landing gear on Hultgreen's machine could not be extended. As a result, the right wing could touch the ground on landing and the aircraft could then overturn. While Hultgreen and her navigator Ron Lotz circled over the base in order to burn as much fuel as possible and to extend the jammed landing gear through flight maneuvers, the emergency landing was prepared on the ground. This landing would work like an aircraft carrier landing. Hultgreen had to hit a steel cable with the catch hook that would brake the aircraft as quickly as possible. After a test approach, she managed to touch down the plane with the left wheel. The jet tipped over on the front wheel and caught the rope. The right wing remained in the air until shortly before the final stop and then touched down with the tip. The plane made another half turn to the right and then came to a stop. The damage to the plane was only $ 16 for a new wing tip. The crew was unharmed and the $ 4 million jammer under the right wing was not damaged. Hultgreen was to be proposed for an Air Medal , but her commanding officer rejected the application.

Combat Exclusion Laws

Former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin

On April 17, 1993, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) met in Falls Church, Virginia . This committee had recommended repealing the Combat Exclusion Laws since 1975. For two months now, the Navy has officially supported the women in their concerns. All that was needed was a government decision. Hultgreen and other pilots took the opportunity to speak directly to the committee members. In a panel discussion, Hultgreen and another female pilot stood up and asked Air Force General McPeak a question to which he had no counterargument: whether he knew of any existing mixed-sex squadron that there were problems with the cooperation between men and women. McPeak finally said what he really thought: that there were no reasons women shouldn't fly in combat and that he was just prejudiced. This admission by the general led Defense Minister Les Aspin to announce on April 28, 1993 that women would henceforth be allowed to fly combat aircraft on an equal footing.


For Hultgreen, things turned out differently than planned. She was eager to serve on the West Coast, but the Navy couldn't train her on the F / A-18 there. Instead, she opted for the F-14 Tomcat known from the movie Top Gun and was transferred to Naval Air Station Miramar for training. She would train on the old F-14A with its fault-prone TF-30 engines, and not on the more modern F-14D "Super Tomcat".

In addition to Hultgreen, two other women were trained as pilots at the VF-124 “Gunfighters” training squadron in Miramar. At the same time, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was rebuilt in San Diego so that women could travel on board. In addition to the bedrooms, this mainly affected the sanitary facilities. In the spring of 1995 the Abraham Lincoln would leave the Persian Gulf and Hultgreen and her colleagues would be there. The schedule wasn't tight. During the introductory tour through the superiors' offices, Hultgreen also met Lt. Neil “Waylon” Jennings, with whom she would later complete her fatal final flight.

During his training, Hultgreen came off best or second best in most disciplines. She only managed to qualify for carrier landings on the second attempt and finished slightly above average as the third of seven pilots. With her final landing on the USS Constellation on July 24, 1994, Kara Hultgreen became the first fully qualified F-14 pilot in the Navy.

Hultgreen joined the VF-213 "Blacklions" in Miramar, assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln . On arrival she earned the callsign she became known by after her death. Since she had been interviewed for television shortly before, she was still appropriately made up. Her team mates called her "Revlon" from now on. The company Revlon is one of the leading US cosmetics groups.

In October 1994, the Abraham Lincoln carrier group began preparations for deployment in the Persian Gulf. The Abraham Lincoln Air Wing carried out long-range attacks in Fallon, Nevada. The Tomcats mainly flew hunting protection for the bomb-throwing Hornets and also dropped some bombs themselves.

Accidental death on October 25, 1994

Video recordings of the accident

On October 25th several Tomcats should be transferred from Miramar to Abraham Lincoln . The porter had left San Diego the day before. With Hultgreen in the aircraft Lion 103 (an F-14A, BuNo 160390) flew as Weapons Systems Officer (RIO) Lt. Matthew Klemish. The leadership of the two-man formation had Lt. Neil "Waylon" Jennings with Lion 116 , who had been transferred from the "Aggressor" squadron in Miramar to the VF-213. After almost an hour of flight, the planes approached Abraham Lincoln at around 3 p.m. local time . In order to maintain the prescribed maximum landing weight, fuel was drained.

Hultgreen kept a distance from Jennings so that he could land on a train without queuing. Jennings first had to cancel the final approach because the flight deck had not yet been cleared. At 3:01 p.m. Lion 103 swiveled into the final approach, but was to the right of the ideal line. Contrary to the regulations, Hultgreen corrected with a lot of left rudder. The manual of the F-14 expressly warns against such a procedure (side slip), as this could lead to an engine failure due to deteriorated air flow. This then also happened: The left engine suffered a stall (ger .: "stall") in the compressor stage, so that the engine did not produce more thrust. The nose swiveled to the left as intended, but the asymmetrical thrust in the event of an engine failure due to their widely spaced arrangement on the F-14 increased the sideways movement. The aircraft slowed down and lost disproportionately in altitude, the nose came up and the jet rolled to the left, as the remaining engine on the right was still delivering thrust.

Hultgreen then stopped the approach, activated the afterburners and tried to steer the aircraft to the left of the ship, as there was an acute risk of collision. This made the situation worse, as the one-sided thrust intensified the sideways movement to such an extent that it could not be absorbed even by counter corrections to the rudder. When the jet began to roll faster and pointed towards the water, Klemish released the ejection seat . The RIO seated in the rear was the first to be shot out of the aircraft 0.9 seconds later; the roll angle at this time was approx. 90 ° to the left. So that the pilot and RIO do not meet in the air, they are shot out with a time delay of 0.4 seconds and not vertically, but each 20 ° to the side - the RIO to the right, the pilot to the left. When Hultgreens seat triggered, the roll angle was already 110 ° - too much for a safe exit. At an estimated 250 km / h, she hit the surface of the water in her seat.

The later autopsy of the body revealed impact injuries and drowning as the cause of death. None of the injuries found were directly fatal, but it was not possible to say whether the total would have been survivable. What is certain is that the impact no longer separated the seat as intended and pulled Hultgreen under water. Lt. Klemish survived the exit with small wounds and was rescued from the water after four minutes.

Salvage and burial

The recovery of the corpse and the aircraft was difficult, as both were about 1200 m deep. After 19 days, Hultgreen's body and the ejection seat were recovered. It wasn't until the third attempt on December 21, 1994 that the jet was lifted. For this purpose, steel cables had to be attached to the wreck with a diving robot. The wreck was then taken to NAS North Island near San Diego for investigation.

On November 21, 1994, Kara Spears Hultgreen was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery . A memorial service including four tomcats flying over in the Missing Man formation had previously been held in San Antonio . In Arlington, the coffin was driven to the designated grave site in a four-horse carriage. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton was also present at the ceremony and condoled the family.

Causes of accidents

A Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-412 turbofan turbine installed in an F-14A of the VF-143

Shortly after the accident, a compressor shed was discussed as the cause of the accident. Statements by Klemish and the analysis of the video recording of the approach confirmed this; only the right engine last had an exhaust plume. The main interest in the investigation of the wreck was therefore the left TF-30 engine. It was found that the engine was fully functional at the time of the accident. However, the left engine had a stuck mid-compression bypass valve (MCB). If the compressor stall is imminent, air in the engine is diverted via the MCB so that the air flow in the compressor stage does not stop. This valve had jammed in the closed position from wear and contamination, reducing the compressor stall engine's tolerance by an estimated 26 percent. Hultgreen's severe rudder course correction and the changes in engine speed during the approach further reduced the tolerance, but both factors were still within normal parameters and would not have resulted in a stall if the MCB had worked. Normally, such a loss of thrust in the engine should have been clearly indicated to both the pilot and the RIO via indicator lights. However, statements by Klemish suggest that the compressor stall had not been reported and the crew did not know they were in a dangerous situation until it was too late.

With its engines widely spaced, the F-14 will develop strong sideways motion when an engine fails, in addition to the tendency to yaw and roll in the direction of the failed engine . A very high angle of attack (AOA) is achieved in a short time . If the pilot fails to keep the angle of attack low and to prevent the turn towards the extinguished engine, the forward speed will be so low that the jet will stall completely and fall uncontrollably towards the ground. According to the NATOPS manual , the aircraft can be controlled up to about 14 ° AOA ; in simulator tests , almost 20 ° were still controllable. At this 20 ° Hultgreens Jet also got out of control.

Would the crash have been prevented?

This question was asked repeatedly, especially in the media. One possible answer to this question is given by the experiments of the sister squadron VF-211, whose commander James Winnefeld sat down with eight of his pilots in the simulator and recreated the accident. Although the pilots were told that their left engine would fail on final approach, only the pilot with the most flying experience, Winnefeld himself, managed to get the aircraft out of the situation unharmed in the first attempt. The credibility of these simulator tests was later called into question. Interception of an aircraft with only one functioning engine and a high angle of attack on the final approach was not trained in the Navy prior to Hultgreen's accident. The critics argued that as a pilot, however, one could very well have come up with the idea of ​​simply carrying out standard stall procedures in this situation. If the pilots of the VF-211 had been instructed in advance via Hultgreens how to proceed, they would probably have tried to fly the plane out the Hultgreens way. The simulator tests would have been falsified.

The Mishap Investigation Report (MIR)

The above considerations led to the official explanation of the accident, which was recorded in the final document of the JAG investigation and was communicated to the public by Vice Admiral Robert J. Spane.

In addition to the official JAG report, a second independent investigation is carried out in the event of accidents by a commission (Aircraft Mishap Board, AMB) made up of experienced pilots. The aim is to get to the bottom of the cause of the accident so that it can be prevented in the future. The AMB creates a confidential document, the Mishap Investigation Report (MIR). It consists of a detailed description of the course of the accident and possible theses on causes and consequences. Every possible idea is evaluated and ultimately either accepted or rejected by the commission. So it is also possible to express assumptions and opinions. The MIR is only accessible to the highest authorities, who draw their conclusions from it and take measures in their area of ​​responsibility to prevent accidents in the future. The confidential approach with MIRs has proven itself in the Navy. Since the introduction of the naval aviation safety program, the number of accidents has been reduced by a factor of around 10.

In the case of Lt. Hultgreen was given the confidential MIR to the press by a stranger on the grounds that it contradicted the JAG report and attributed the accident primarily to pilot errors. Some media outlets suspected a story: The Navy might want to have something covered up so as not to have to admit that a woman had made a mistake. The arguments centered on the fact that Hultgreen had failed to get the plane out of the situation, but could possibly have done it using correct methods. Hultgreen would have made a rookie mistake that the Navy wanted to sweep under the table in order not to have to admit that women are given preferential treatment but insufficiently trained. A rescue of the aircraft would only have been possible if Hultgreen had recognized early on that the left engine had failed. However, the AMB wrote explicitly in its report that it assumes that the compressor stall had not been signaled to the cockpit by indicator lights. But if there was no longer any chance of intercepting the aircraft anyway, the subsequent pilot errors were not responsible for the crash. This was also the - possibly poorly communicated - statement of the JAG report.


Following the recommendations of the MIR Commission, the Navy took measures to prevent future accidents. An immediate inspection was carried out on the entire F-14 fleet equipped with TF-30 engines to ensure that the MCB valves could move freely. In the future, too, more attention should be paid to this component and it should be replaced by a more modern design in the medium term. The engines should be tested more often to check their thrust and stall tolerance. The curricula for pilot training have been expanded to include landing procedures with one engine. The fact that there was no communication via the aircraft's intercom during the accident led to the recommendation that all crews communicate intensively during critical phases of the flight.

In 1997, Kara Hultgreen's mother, Sally Spears, was appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) as a consultant . In 1998 she published her daughter's biography under the title Call Sign Revlon. The Life and Death of Navy Fighter Pilot Kara Hultgreen .


  • Sally Spears: Call Sign Revlon. The Life and Death of Navy Fighter Pilot Kara Hultgreen. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD 1998, ISBN 1-55750-809-7 (biography).

Web links

Commons : Kara Spears Hultgreen  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ David Donald, Jon Lake: US Navy & Marine Corps - Air Power Directory , Aerospace Publishing London, 1996, p. 183
  2. Jon Lake: On the Prowl . In AIR International, September 1999, p. 157