An F-16C pilot experiencing mechanical failure was trying to return to base when he was forced to aim his disabled aircraft at an open area about six miles short of a runway at Joint Base Andrews, according to military officials who briefed reporters in the wake of the crash Wednesday.
The entire episode unfolded in a matter of “seconds not minutes”, according to Air National Guard Lt. Col. Michael Croker.
The pilot survived in good condition and no homes or people were hit on the ground, both local and military officials said.
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The plane carried at least 510 rounds of training ammunition on board, and two external tanks carrying nearly 700 gallons of jet fuel were jettisoned and fell to the ground during the doomed flight.
The fuel tanks and main wreckage of the aircraft have been located and there is no threat to the public, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Lisa Mabutt, who is responsible for emergency response at Andrews.
Coker said the ill-fated plane had just departed Andrews at 9:15 a.m. with three other fighters when the mechanical failure happened near the Potomac River to the west of Andrews.
The pilot made a hard turn to the south and then turned east back toward the base before the pilot realized reaching the airfield would be impossible. The pilot maneuvered the disabled aircraft toward a wooded area about six miles southwest of Andrews and ejected safely, Coker said.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the mechanical failure. A bird strike has not been ruled out, but the plane was at an altitude in the “mid-1000’s” when the emergency happened, which is typically higher than birds fly, Coker said.
The three other fighters flying with the doomed F-16 returned to base with no damage, indicating a collision is not suspected, Coker added.
Witnesses on the ground reported explosions after the crash and expressed concern about live ammunition.
Military officials said the crashed F-16 was carrying 510 rounds of “training ammunition”, which are projectiles that are fired at targets but that do not explode or pierce armor, according to Brigadier General George Degnon, commander of the D.C. Air National Guard.
The pilot of the fighter has been with the D.C. Air National Guard for four years and has been flying with the unit for about a year, according to Lt. Col. Coker.
The F-16C that crashed was manufactured in 1986 or 1987, according to Gen. Degnon, which would make the plane at least 30 years old.
F-16’s are single seat fighter jets that can carry an array of bombs and ammunition that make it capable of attacking targets both in the air and on the ground.
The fighters with the D.C. Air National Guard are responsible for patrolling the region continuously to protect the Capital area from attack and routinely fly while armed.
The F-16C involved in Wednesday’s crash was part of a group of four planes on a routine training mission to a range in Pennsylvania where they were scheduled to run strafing attacks on targets on the ground.