AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — A Thunderbirds pilot ejected safely as his fighter jet crashed into a deserted Colorado area after soaring over the Air Force Academy’s commencement ceremony. A rescue helicopter then ferried him to a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama.
Maj. Alex Turner, of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, had just flown over the crowd watching Obama’s commencement address Thursday afternoon when something went wrong and he was forced to ditch his plane. The jet skidded a few hundred yards across a grassy field, leaving a smudgy, gray mark before coming to rest on its belly.
Turner, who has logged more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq, parachuted safely and was not seriously injured. Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, commander of the Thunderbirds, said that the pilot maneuvered the plane so it would not crash into a nearby residential neighborhood.
Turner landed about a half-mile from his plane and seemed “pretty calm” when firefighters from the nearby town of Security arrived, said Pete Smith, a member of the Security Fire Department.
“I would have been a little more upset than he was,” Smith said.
News of the crash broke while Obama’s motorcade was returning to Peterson Air Force Base for his flight back to Washington. Turner ejected about 15 miles south of the Air Force Academy near Peterson, where Air Force One was waiting to take off.
Emergency responders who picked up Turner in the rescue helicopter brought him to a spot that happened to be on the president’s motorcade route back to Air Force One.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the pilot met Obama, and the president told him it might be a good time to contact his wife and let her know that he’s OK.
It was one of two crashes Thursday for the military’s elite fighter jet performance teams. An official in Tennessee said a pilot was killed when his Blue Angels fighter jet crashed, but no civilians were hurt on the ground. The Navy’s Blue Angels team was near Nashville practicing for a scheduled performance this weekend.
In Colorado, the Thunderbirds had just finished their traditional performance at the commencement, screaming overhead as the graduating officers tossed their white hats skyward.
The jets then did multiple fly-bys over the academy’s football stadium, where the graduation took place, blasting by in tight formations or looping high overhead.
There was no obvious sign of trouble with any of the jets during the performance.
Hammond said the problem happened after Turner put the landing gear down.
Justin Payne was working on wallpaper inside his house when the plane struck the ground.
“What I heard was a big boom,” Payne said. “I ran outside. Three or four degrees to the left and that jet would have hit our house.”
Payne said the fuselage slid about 2,000 feet before coming to rest. He said it appeared the nose was ripped from the rest of the F-16.
Authorities quickly cordoned off the area, and a hazardous materials crew was suiting up to inspect the site, said Payne, who added he was ordered to stay inside his house.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alexander Rodriguez, a U.S. Air Force firefighter stationed in San Angelo, Texas, who was visiting with his family, said he raced from his brother’s house after hearing “a few loud bangs” and saw the plane gliding close to the ground before impact.
“I started booking straight for the aircraft,” Rodriguez said. “I saw the cockpit was empty and checked for any fuel hazard – there was a single fuel leak on the right side. I heard a ticking noise that indicated something was still running and I backed off.”
By then, first responders from Petersen and Colorado Springs were arriving on the scene, he said.
The Thunderbirds are the Air Force’s precision flying team, known for their red, white and blue painted F-16 fighter jets. The unit, based out of Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, will perform more than 40 shows in 2016, according to its website. The vaunted aerial demonstration team has been performing air demonstrations since 1947.
The Air Force said the Thunderbirds will cancel upcoming shows while the crash is investigated, but officials did not say how long the team will be grounded.