Recordings of conversations between federal air controllers and the pilot reveal the pilot of the ailing F/A18D Hornet at least twice was offered a chance to put down the plane at the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado. The base sits at the tip of a peninsula with a flight path from the south over water.
Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration tapes disclose the pilot decided to fly the jet, which had lost one engine and was having signs of trouble with the second engine, to the inland Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which is about 10 miles north of Coronado.
That route took him over the University City neighborhood, where the Dec. 8 crash incinerated two homes and damaged three others.
Meanwhile, officials in Washington, D.C., said 13 Marine Corps personnel have been disciplined for errors involved in the crash. Service officials told members of Congress on Tuesday that four Marine Corps officers have been relieved of duty for directing the Hornet to fly over the residential area. Nine other military personnel received lesser reprimands. Officials said the pilot should have been told to fly over San Diego Bay and land at Coronado.
It's difficult to determine the pilot's precise location from the tapes, but he reported his position as 20 miles south of Coronado, flying at 13,000 feet with 20 to 30 minutes of fuel remaining less than a minute before he was asked by controllers if he wanted to land at Coronado, according to the tapes.
When air controllers told him a runway was available at Coronado, the pilot said, "I'm actually going to try to take it to Miramar if possible."
According to the recordings, air controllers gave the pilot instructions that would allow for a landing at either Coronado or Miramar. At one point he was given a heading to follow, but indicated he was having trouble with the jet.
"I'm trying, sir, but single engine," the pilot said.
The pilot said he wanted to land at Miramar and told controllers to have emergency crews ready on the ground.
The pilot told the air controllers at one point he was within sight of Miramar, but about two minutes later, according to the tapes, an unidentified pilot reported seeing smoke on the ground near the Miramar base.
The pilot ejected safely.
Four members of a Korean family were killed in their home - Young Mi Yoon, 36; her daughters Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months; and her mother, Suk Im Kim, 60. Kim was visiting from South Korea to help her daughter move across town and adjust to the arrival of her second child.
Military officials say the jet suffered a rare double-engine failure and Marine generals initially defended the choice to send the Hornet to the Miramar base.
The disclosures in the tapes raise at least the possibility that the crash might have been averted. Since the crash, a lingering question has been why the pilot didn't attempt a landing at Coronado over open water.
Military officials have said that after the first engine faltered, Miramar was a straight shot and that going to North Island would have required more engine thrust.
But the tapes indicate that the limping jet apparently was closer to Coronado when the pilot reported a possible problem with the second engine.
The Miramar base is ringed by freeways and bordered on its western end by residential areas that include a high school.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Manuel Delarosa, in December declined to disclose the plane's location when the engine trouble started or whether the aircraft was capable of reaching Coronado, saying to do so could compromise the investigation.
In private briefings with members of Congress, military officials have reportedly said there were factors that made landing at North Island unfeasible but those issues have not been disclosed publicly.
Miramar dates to 1917, when the site was used to train troops headed to World War I. As late as the 1950s, it was still miles beyond San Diego's urban fringe, but homes have since been built right up to the edge of the base, where the Navy established its "Top Gun" fighter training school in 1969.