After swinging at low altitude across the wooded hills of Georgia's Fannin County, a Navy T-39N trainer jet crashed Monday, becoming the fourth Navy trainer to go down in eight years – a quarter of the original fleet ordered by the Navy in the 1990s.
The flight of the T-39N involved in Monday's crash originated at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., the home of the Navy and Marine Corps pilot training command. The plane, part of Training Air Wing 6, was in north Georgia as part of a cross-country training mission, according to the Navy.
In 2006, a T-39N crashed on Johns Mountain in northwest Georgia after it flew so low it hit a tree. The 2006 crash came during an exercise labeled as "low-level bomb targeting."
On May 8, 2002, the Navy training command lost two T-39Ns on the same day over the Gulf of Mexico. The cause has never been determined. No mayday signals were sent and the planes were never recovered. Navy Capt. Charles Tinker, in a eulogy at the time, called the 2002 disappearances "a tragic mystery."
According to Rob Koon, a spokesman for Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., the Navy ordered 15 of the T-39N planes, a military version of the North American Rockwell-built Sabreliner, a corporate jet. That means one-quarter of the original T-39N training fleet has now crashed.
There were no survivors in any of the previous crashes. As of Tuesday morning, three flight crew members from the latest crash were confirmed dead while one was still missing.
"The aircraft is minor, it's the loss of personnel that troubles us," says Lt. Brett Dawson, public affairs officer for the Chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas. "It's a bad day, a terrible day for us, and a tragedy for the families of these four crew members, and our prayers are with their families.
"The whole mission and everything will be under investigation up to the crash," he adds. "Once the investigation is complete there will be a report that goes up the chain of command, and from that report we will determine the cause of it and work to prevent this type of mishap from happening again."
On Monday, this reporter witnessed a military jet that matched the appearance of the T-39N trainer flying very low over Carters Lake, Ga., about an hour before the crash. The jet did not seem to be in distress, but banked normally over the lake. Carters Lake is about 20 miles from the crash site, near Blue Ridge Lake.
Maj. Keith Bosen, of the Fannin County Sheriff's Department, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that law enforcement officers in the area had also taken note of the low-flying plane. Bosen told the newspaper that Blue Ridge Lake is along the flight path for military training exercises.
The plane crashed into the woods after buzzing a home at an altitude of about 100 feet, according to witnesses.
Flying conditions were perfect Monday, with only a slight wind and clear skies.