A Kfir jet, similar to the one flown by Carroll LeFon on the day he died. Photo: Jerry Gunner/Flickr
On the morning of March 6, a contractor-owned Kfir fighter jet missed the runway at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. “The airplane struck the ground in an open field in the northwest corner of the airport property and impacted a concrete building on the field,” the National Transportation Safety Board reported. A photo from the scene showed the Israeli-made jet’s nose buried in the structure’s side and scorch marks on the walls.
The pilot, 51-year-old Carroll LeFon, died — apparently on impact. In an instant the world lost an experienced warrior and an eerily prescient writer. The NTSB described the conditions at the time of LeFon’s death as “snowing with northerly winds of 23 knots gusting to 34 knots, and visibility between one-half and one and one-half miles.” That’s strong enough to qualify as “gale-force.”
In a long, eloquent blog post in early December, he described in foreboding detail the unique dangers of flying from Naval Air Station Fallon. Dust kicked up by “howling winds … seemed to concentrate on Naval Air Station Fallon like it had nowhere else to go,” he observed. After a morning of simulated dogfights, LeFon found the Fallon runway choked with dust. He diverted to the nearby Reno airport with a dwindling supply of fuel. “You do get second chances,” he mused.
The crash raises questions about the safety of air operations at Fallon, which is home to TOPGUN and other Navy air training despite being plagued by nasty weather. In the end, those conditions contributed to the death of LeFon, a retired Navy captain, a former instructor at TOPGUN — yes, that TOPGUN — and a prolific blogger who wrote under the pseudonym “Neptunus Lex.”
LeFon worked for the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, an 18-year-old firm that operates old jets as mock enemies for Navy fighter training. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus called LeFon “a great naval aviator, a professional analyst of all things naval and a soulful and compelling writer of poetry and prose.” Others praised him as a loving husband and father and a mentor to young writers. I met LeFon at a bar in Washington, D.C., in 2007. I found him unassuming and soft-spoken, hardly typical qualities for fighter pilots. Or for bloggers, for that matter. In his writing, he was prone to quoting Yeats.
The death of “Lex,” as he was known to his readers, is a reminder of the great risks military aviators face every day, even in this age of high-tech stealth fighters and pilotless drones. It’s also an almost literary fulfillment of LeFon’s own foreshadowing.
Four months after his blog post describing NAS Fallon’s dangers, LeFon’s luck ran out when he found Fallon and Reno blanketed in snow. “The pilot then turned back toward Fallon and stated to air traffic controllers that he was in a critical fuel state,” the NTSB reported. “The pilot descended and maneuvered first toward runway 31, then toward runway 13.” That’s when the Kfir struck the ground.
In his December post LeFon had described finding beauty in a dangerous experience. He recalled watching a sleek F-16 performing a dramatic takeoff with its afterburner screaming. “Such experiences have a use-by date,” Neptunus Lex wrote. “These things don’t last forever.”