The Navy’s initial report says the jet had just taken off from the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach before it crashed. Three buildings were destroyed, and two more had significant damage, according to Virginia Beach fire department officials.
Early reports credited the pilot with averting greater destruction and possible loss of life.
“There’s nowhere he could have touched down in a safe way,” George Pilkington, who lives near the crash site, told CNN. “That it didn’t cause more damage to surrounding apartments is definitely a blessing.”
Mr. Pilkington said he saw the aircraft flying at an unusually low level, its nose cocked upwards, and spewing fuel. That suggests a mechanical malfunction and the pilot’s effort to dump fuel in order to reach the airfield.
“By doing so, he mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire," Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach Emergency Medical Services division chief, told the Associated Press. "With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been."
Other eye witnesses said they saw parachutes near ejection seats – one person said one of the pilots was still strapped into the seat – indicating that the pilots had bailed out at very low level.
The F/A-18D Hornet jet was from the VFA-106 training squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana. The squadron’s mission is to train Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 replacement pilots and weapon systems officers before they join fleet squadrons.
According to the squadron web site, “Every 6 weeks a class of between 8-12 newly-winged Navy and Marine Corps Aircrew begins the 9 month training course in which they will learn the basics of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions culminating in day/night carrier qualification and subsequent assignment to a fleet Hornet squadron.” The squadron also trains experienced Navy and Marine Corps aviators transitioning to the F/A-18.
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.
Although most people in the area – including many military families – support military operations there, there are occasional complaints about low-flying jets, as there are at other military air bases around the country. Over the years, residential neighborhoods and businesses have grown up around many US military facilities.
Meanwhile, it’s likely to be months before official investigations determine the cause of the accident.
"We will conduct a complete investigation into the cause of this mishap and share all information we have as soon as we are able to do so," Admiral John Harvey, Jr., the US Fleet Forces commander, said in a statement Friday.
But for now the focus is on accounting for and tending to residents in the area.
"We're going to assume that there are people missing, and we're going to do a detailed search,” Virginia Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Tim Riley told CNN. "It's going to take a while to get through there to see the details.”
Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms told reporters Friday the crash likely will result in fatalities.
“You pray that something like this never happens, and now it’s happened," Mr. Sessoms said. "Right now I just pray that our fatalities are low.”
Virginia Beach Fire Department officials reported that six people, including the pilots, were transported to the local hospital, where all had non life-threatening injuries.
The same model of fighter jet, an F/A-18D, crashed in December 2008 while returning to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California 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. A federal judge ordered the federal government to pay the family nearly $18 million in restitution.
There have been more than 25 crashes involving Navy aircraft on or near the Oceana Naval Air Station over the past four decades, reports the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. The deadliest occurred in June 1992 when a Sikorsky H-53 helicopter went down minutes after taking off, killing seven Navy reservists.
• Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.