VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — 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 from VFA-106 the Gladiators 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.
The airmen were from Naval Air Station Oceana, less than 10 miles away. They 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 jet 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 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 the instructor was "extremely experienced."
Joseph said the airman being trained would have had 1 ½ years of intensive training before he taking 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."
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."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Steve Szkotak, Michael Felberbaum and Dena Potter in Richmond; Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C.; and Pam Ramsey in Charleston, W.Va.