Jet Again Slips Away From Salvage Team Lt. Kara S. Hultgreen Crashed Into The Ocean On Oct. 25. Her Fighter May Have Clues To Her Death.

Posted: December 14, 1994

WASHINGTON — It was literally at their fingertips - a dripping, 30-ton behemoth of an airplane that had taken hours to haul from the bottom of the Pacific at the end of a shredding Kevlar cable.

Five weeks had passed since their robot submarine had found the crashed F- 14 that killed the female pilot. Five weeks of finicky weather and bad luck: Part of a wing had broken off when they had tried this before.

But around noon on Saturday, 40 miles off the coast of Southern California, Lt. Kara S. Hultgreen's battered fighter, potentially laden with clues to her death, was within reach of a crack Navy salvage team.

Then the cable snapped.

And once again the big gray jet with the black lions insignia painted on its tail slid beneath the waves, keeping what secrets it holds about a pilot's last moments and about the debate over women as combat aviators.

"The sea does not willingly give up what it has claimed," said Cmdr. Patrick Baccei, head of the Navy's Deep Submergence Unit in San Diego, which has been leading the salvage operation.

Said Cmdr. Don Northam, the unit's executive officer: "We were on the 5- yard line and figured a touchdown was imminent. It was like throwing an interception."

The Navy has been working for eight weeks to determine why Hultgreen, one of its first female combat fighter pilots, was killed on Oct. 25, when her jet crashed into the ocean on a landing approach to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

There had been anonymous talk that she was not a top pilot, that she had flown a poor approach, and, amid the ongoing debate over women in combat, suggestions that she had been pushed beyond her abilities. The Navy has angrily rejected such ideas, saying Hultgreen was an above-average pilot in a highly demanding trade.

Still, officials have been eager to find out exactly why she crashed.

Her big jet was lumbering in for a landing on the carrier at 3:01 p.m. when it suddenly started to roll over. The F-14's radar intercept officer, Matthew P. Klemish, 26, ejected safely. But an instant later when Hultgreen ejected, the jet had rolled so far that she was hurled down into the sea.

Klemish later said he heard a "pop" just before the crash, and videotape of the approach shows no exhaust coming from the left of the jet's two engines.

Two Navy investigations into the crash are underway - a safety probe designed to avoid future such accidents, and a legal probe to see if anyone is at fault. Retrieving the plane is important to both.

The salvage team found the plane Nov. 5, sitting on its landing gear 3,700 feet down. Hultgreen's body, still strapped in the ejection seat, was found nearby and brought to the surface Nov. 12.

But bringing up the jet - one of the largest airplanes the Navy has ever tried to retrieve intact from such depths - would prove harder.

A 142-foot barge carrying a 67-ton crane and a special winch had to be towed to the area and lashed to the side of a civilian research ship to try to keep it positioned over the crash site.

The plan was to use a robot, which is equipped with arms, lights and cameras, to attach custom-made slings to the jet. Then using a 1 1/2-inch Kevlar cable sheathed in plastic, the jet would be hauled to the surface.

Bad weather often intervened. During the first lift attempt on Nov. 21 - the day of Hultgreen's burial in Arlington National Cemetery - the rig became tangled and part of one of the jet's wings broke off. The lift was stopped.

Finally, on Saturday, success seemed likely. The jet had been rigged several days before. Lifting began at 9 a.m. It went slowly - about 25 feet a minute. At last, at about 11 a.m., preceded by weird turbulence on the water, the jet broke the surface. It came up sideways, though, instead of tail first as intended.

The salvage team realized that the cable was tangled around the jet's starboard landing gear and was almost cut in two. With its prize within arms reach, it began working to secure the jet before the cable broke.

The jet, however, was quickly relocated, and the Navy immediately started planning for a third try.

This time, the salvage men vowed, they would not let it get away.

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