VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - 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.
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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 percent 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."
While Joseph agreed the fuel loss could have been tied to the malfunction, he added, "I would say every action they took was an attempt to mitigate damage on the ground, up to and including the loss of life."
The aircraft can carry up to 8,000 pounds of jet fuel, Joseph said.
The crash happened in the Hampton Roads area, which has a large concentration of military bases, including Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. Naval Air Station Oceana, where the F/A-18D that crashed was assigned, is located in Virginia Beach. Both the pilots were from Virginia Beach, Weisgerber said.
Weisgerber said he did not know how many times the student pilot had been in the air, but that the instructor was "extremely experienced."
Joseph said the airman being trained would have had 1 ½ years of intensive training before he would take flight from Oceana.
"This is not a student naval aviator. They are well-trained," he said. "The mitigating factor in this is there was an eminently well-trained and qualified trainer in the back seat."
Dozens of police cars, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles filled the densely populated neighborhood where the plane crashed. Yellow fire hoses snaked through side streets as fire crews poured water on the charred rooftops of brick apartment houses. By late afternoon, the fire had been put out.
Residents of the apartment complex described a confusing scene and an apologetic pilot.
Colby Smith said his house started shaking and then the power went out, as he saw a red and orange blaze outside his window. He ran outside, where he saw billowing black smoke and then came upon the pilot as he ran to a friend's home.
"I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood," Smith told WVEC-TV.
"The pilot said, 'I'm sorry for destroying your house.'"
Smith said he and another man helped the pilot onto the street.
Patrick Kavanaugh, who lives in the complex where the jet crashed, opened up his sliding glass door after hearing a loud explosion and saw one of the jet's pilots on the ground with blood on his face. Kavanaugh said the pilot, whom he described as a "young boy," was very upset and apologetic.
"The poor guy was in shock. I checked for broken bones and opened wounds," said Kavanaugh, who spent 23 years in the rescue squad and retired in 1996.
Despite having suffered several heart attacks and open-heart surgery, Kavanaugh said his old rescue skills kicked in as he dragged the pilot around the corner and away from the fire before several other explosions occurred.
Those who took shelter at a nearby school tended by the Red Cross wondered what they'd find on their return.
Charles Bisbee Jr., 70, said one his sons, Charles III, is wheelchair bound and needs a place to rest, along with some medical supplies.
"We were going to give my son lunch, and just heard this crash, then another crash, then something exploded," Bisbee said. "We got outside, and the pilot was laying on the ground with his chute on."
He said some bystanders ran over and cut the parachute cords and tended to the pilot, "a young guy, and he was upset."
A fighter jet crashed in December 2008 while returning to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar after a training exercise in a San Diego neighborhood. That crash killed four members of one family and destroyed two homes.
The Marine Corps said the jet suffered a mechanical failure, but a series of bad decisions led the pilot — a student — to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base after his engine failed. The pilot ejected and told investigators he screamed in horror as he watched the jet plow into the neighborhood, incinerating two homes. A federal judge ordered the U.S. government to pay the family nearly $18 million in restitution.
Most flights from Naval Air Station Oceana are training flights, Weisgerber said.
Joseph, a former airline pilot and retired Marine colonel and naval pilot, said the F/A-18D has been "an incredible success" for the Navy and Marine Corps. They are used in training and in combat, and a half-dozen or more countries use them.
Joseph said he expects the Navy will quickly determine what brought the jet down.
"I've investigated hundreds of accidents," he said. "Even better than the black box on the airlines or the cockpit voice recorders are two healthy and alive crewmembers who are going to vividly describe what their observations were at the time."