VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A fighter jet that malfunctioned just after takeoff hurtled into a Virginia Beach apartment complex on Friday in a spectacular crash that sent flames and black smoke billowing from the rubble.
The two pilots managed to eject just before impact, suffering minor injuries along with five others on the ground. Several residents described hearing a loud explosion and looking out their windows to see the red and orange blaze. In the confusion that followed, two men helped one of the bloodied pilots from the two-seat F/A-18D Hornet move to safety.
“Oh, my God, I heard three really loud explosions, then the black smoke went up high in the sky,” said 71-year-old Felissa Ezell, who lives in a townhouse near the crash site.
By evening, emergency crews were searching through the charred remains of the complex, where some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. No fatalities had been reported.
Seven people, including the pilots from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana, were taken to a hospital. All except one of the pilots were released by late afternoon.
Virginia Beach Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley said three residents remained unaccounted for late Friday.
“We don’t know if we have working cell numbers, if they’ve traveled,” Riley said. “We don’t know if people are staying with other people.”
He said crews had done an exhaustive search of about 95 percent of the apartment complex and would continue searching throughout the night.
“We consider ourselves very fortunate,” he said.
The plane 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. He said investigators will try to determine what happened. The jet went down less than 10 miles from Oceana.
The pilots were a student and an instructor. Weisgerber said he did not know how many times the student pilot had been in the air, but that the instructor was “extremely experienced.”
Dozens of police cars, firetrucks and other emergency vehicles filled the densely populated neighborhood where the plane crashed. By late afternoon, the fire had been put out.
Residents of the apartment complex described a confusing scene and an apologetic pilot.
Colby Smith said his house started shaking and then the power went out, as he saw a red and orange blaze outside his window. He ran outside, where he saw billowing black smoke and then came upon the pilot as he ran to a friend’s home.
“I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood,” Smith told WVEC-TV.
“The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house.’ ”
Smith said he and another man helped the pilot onto the street.
Most flights from Naval Air Station Oceana are training flights, Weisgerber said.
“This is where the Navy teaches our F-18 pilots for the very first time in fleet-representative aircraft,” he said.