A day after a Navy jet crashed in Virginia Beach, Va. – burning several apartment buildings and sending dozens of residents to shelters – officials believe there’s been no loss of life. By Saturday morning, officials reported no one missing, although they continued to search the destroyed and damage buildings for visitors or other nonresidents who might have been there.
Seven people were injured, including the two pilots who barely made it out of their stricken aircraft before it became a fireball, but none seriously and all but one (one of the pilots) had left hospitals. Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. Three persons listed as missing Friday night had been found.
A full investigation is likely to take months, but Navy officials now say the F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet experienced a "catastrophic mechanical malfunction" shortly after taking off from the Oceana Naval Air Station.
At takeoff, aircraft typically are full of fuel, making them very heavy. (The F/A-18D, the Navy’s leading strike aircraft with years of combat experience, was not carrying any weapons on this training flight.)
"Catastrophic engine system failure right after takeoff, which is always the most critical phase of flying, leaves very, very few options," aviation safety expert and retired Marine Corps aviator J.F. Joseph told the Associated Press. "You literally run out of altitude, air speed, and ideas all at the same time.”
As soon as the pilots realized their difficulty, they turned back toward the airfield (about two miles away), dumping fuel to reduce weight in hopes that they could reach the runway and land safely.
When the aircraft continued to lose altitude, the pilots – a student pilot in the front seat, a very experienced instructor pilot in the back seat – waited until the last moment before ejecting. One of the pilots was still strapped into the ejection seat when it hit the ground.
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.
At this point, observers are crediting the pilots with averting a worse outcome.
“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.”
"I would say every action they took was an attempt to mitigate damage on the ground, up to and including the loss of life,” said Mr. Joseph, a former airline pilot and retired Marine colonel.
"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."
Some in the area referred to it as a Good Friday miracle, the Virginian-Pilot reported. Gov. Bob McDonnell told the newspaper it was amazing that no fatalities were confirmed in the hours after the crash. "I think it's an act of divine providence," he said.