WASHINGTON — A National Guard fighter jet experienced mechanical problems just a few minutes after taking off from Joint Base Andrews and crashed before the pilot could return to the base Wednesday morning, guard officials said.
The pilot, whose name was not released, was on a training mission with three other F-16 jets when the plane crashed, narrowly missing a cluster of homes off Temple Hill Road about 9:15 a.m. He was taken to the base for medical treatment of minor injuries and later released. The National Guard pilot, who has flown with 121st Fighter Squadron for about a year, was said to be in good spirits.
The pilot ditched fuel tanks in an effort to keep the F-16C aloft and maneuvered to a wooded area about 6 miles from the base in Prince George’s County trying to avoid the densely populated area below, said Brig. Gen. George Degnon, who serves as the acting adjutant general for the D.C. National Guard.
Passers-by reported seeing a thick plume of smoke and neighbors reported that it felt like an earthquake as the plane hit the wooded hillside. Others reported hearing small explosions and loud noises after the crash.
About 20 homes were evacuated on Woodelves Way and Maui Street, and roads around the area were closed to traffic. Residents have since been allowed to return.
“It’s quite a blessing, absolutely, that everything turned out like it did and nothing worse occurred,” said Lt. Col. Michael Croker, who commands the 121st Fighter Squadron, a part of the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard.
Croker credited the pilot’s training for helping him make split-second decisions as the $20 million plane lost altitude.
Each of the fighter jet’s fuel tanks carried 2,200 pounds of fuel and the jet was also armed with training rounds, which contain some gunpowder but aren’t intended to inflict damage like the ammunition used in combat, Croker said.
Some of the loud noises neighbors heard could have been caused by some of those rounds, said Lt. Col. Lisa Mabbutt, acting as director of emergency management for the Joint Base Andrews.
Crews were searching for any unspent ammunition so that it could be made safe, Mabbutt said.
“There is, at this point, no danger to the public, no safety issue,” she said.
The fuel tanks were recovered and investigators were working to recover any other debris that could aid the crash probe, Mabbutt said.
Debris from the fighter jet has been found scattered across a wide area around the primary crash site, said Prince George’s County Fire Chief Ben Barksdale.
Firefighters found a wing and fuselage intact in the woods — just 200 yards from the homes on Woodelves Way. Two other areas where pieces of the plane fell were on fire nearby. The fire also spread to the surrounding brush. Local firefighters assisted crews from the base, who used foam and water to put out the flames, Barksdale said.
The pilot was found about a mile from the crash site on Steed Road, Barksdale said.
Shaun Brown, of Acokeek, was driving along Piscataway Drive to her parent’s house near the crash scene when she saw someone parachuting away from a fighter jet.
“Literally not even a couple of seconds after the ejection, the F-16 went nose up and straight down,” Brown said. “There was just immediate smoke and flames.”
Her first thought was for the safety of her parents.
“I’m so grateful that the pilot was experienced enough to safely eject and to safely get the aircraft away from the houses and away from the school across the street,” Brown said.
Marvin Washington, who lives in the Camelot neighborhood across the street from the wooded crash site, said of the pilot, “I think he landed the aircraft as safe as possible so it caused the minimum amount of damage. Very lucky day for all of us that no one that we are aware of was hurt.”
Other eyewitness described plumes of fire and smoke rising from the ground following a loud boom.
“It sounded like something, imagine if you know how like a tree falls and it shakes the ground,” one witness told NBC Washington. ” At the time when I first saw it, it was actually fire along with the smoke that rose up from the ground.”
“I seen this fighter jet with his nose headed on a downward projection. And I said, ‘That plane looks like it’s lost power.’ … I seen the pilot parachute and it looked like he was coming out further way away from the plane. Seconds later, that’s when I seen the big fireball and puff of smoke and it hit the ground.”
Officials ask anyone who finds what could be debris from the fighter jet to not move it, and to report the debris to the base at 301-981-2002 or by calling 911.
WTOP’s Kristi King, Dick Uliano contributed to this report from Clinton, Maryland. Hanna Choi contributed from Washington.
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