Zooming along at 170 mph in a fighter jet carrying thousands of pounds of volatile fuel, two Navy pilots faced nothing but bad choices when their aircraft malfunctioned over Virginia’s most populated city.
“Catastrophic engine system failure right after takeoff, which is always the most critical phase of flying, leaves very, very few options,” said aviation safety expert and decorated pilot J.F. Joseph. “You literally run out of altitude, air speed and ideas all at the same time,” he said.
Somehow, however, the student pilot and his instructor and everyone on the ground survived Friday when the men ejected from their F/A-18D jet moments before it crashed in a fireball in an apartment complex courtyard. The pilots and five on the ground were hurt, but all but one aviator were out of the hospital hours later.
Crews had carefully checked 95% of the apartments under the charred rubble and only three people remained unaccounted for early Saturday, said fire department Capt. Tim Riley. Crews would continue searching just in case. “We consider ourselves very fortunate,” Riley said.
The airmen from Naval Air Station Oceana, less than 10 miles away, were able to safely escape the aircraft, which weighs up to 50,000 pounds fully fueled and armed, before it careened into the apartment complex, demolishing sections of some buildings and engulfing others in flames. Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. Military authorities are investigating what happened.
The two-seat F18 Hornet had dumped loads of fuel before crashing, though it wasn’t clear if that was because of a malfunction or an intentional maneuver by the pilots, said Capt. Mark Weisgerber with U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
Virginia Beach EMS division chief Bruce Nedelka said witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down, and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.
The plane not having as much fuel on board “mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire,” Nedelka said. “With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been.”