A Sumter-based F-16 fighter jet on a training mission collided with a small airplane Tuesday morning in the sky over a Berkeley County rice plantation, killing two people on the private aircraft and sheering off metal parts that scattered over an 8-mile swath near Moncks Corner.
Air Force Maj. Aaron Johnson, a career pilot from Shaw Air Force Base, survived after safely ejecting from the damaged F-16C Fighting Falcon and parachuting into a field miles to the south of the collision site.
Paramedics said he was alert and walking.
Both occupants of the Cessna 150C were presumed to be dead.
A wallet was found amid the wreckage that fell near Lewisfield Plantation along the Cooper River about 25 miles north of Charleston. But crews were still looking for the victims’ bodies on land and in the water, the county coroner said. They will be named at noon Wednesday.
The Cessna left minutes earlier from the Berkeley County Airport, which is about three miles to the northwest, the coroner said. Their plane had a cruising speed of 125 mph. The jet was likely traveling twice as fast, officials said.
Johnson, meanwhile, was on a solo mission to practice instrument-assisted approaches at Charleston Air Force Base and intended to return to Shaw that day, said Col. Stephen Jost, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at the pilot’s home base. He was still under “positive control” of Charleston air traffic controllers, Jost said, and was likely flying at 230 to 290 mph and between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above the ground.
Such midair collisions between civilian and military aircraft are rare because of the equipment and procedures in place to prevent them, Jost said.
“It’s a routine type of training mission that we do at Joint Base Charleston,” Jost said. “Our pilots are well-trained to fly the approaches into and out of there.
“There are 100 factors that could have been at play here.”
A Washington-based investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to arrive Tuesday night in the Lowcountry to begin looking for the cause, agency spokesman Peter Knudson said. The Air Force also sent a forensics team to the site.
About 150 people from 20 local and federal agencies had amassed at the crash sites.
It was at least the sixth time in the past decade that a military aircraft was involved in a significant crash in South Carolina. Half of those episodes involved F-16s from Shaw.
Air traffic controllers would have been telling Johnson how high and fast to fly at the time, said Jim Brauchle, a former Air Force navigator.
“Even if you’re under radar control, the pilots still have the responsibility to see and avoid,” said Brauchle, an attorney at MotleyRice in Mount Pleasant. “Sometimes pilots can have a false sense of security when air traffic control tells them it has control. But they still have to be looking outside the aircraft.”
‘Jet went through it’
The pilot of the single-engine, two-seat Cessna announced just before 11 a.m. that the plane was leaving the Berkeley County Airport en route to Myrtle Beach, Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury said.
Salisbury said the crew was still in touch by radio with the airport when it collided with the jet at 11:01 a.m.
Several residents reported hearing what sounded like an explosion near Lewisfield Plantation, a sprawling property east of Old U.S. Highway 52 and south of Lake Moultrie.
Jack Patrick, 81, saw the F-16 fly by while he was trimming his lawn on OT Wallace Boulevard. He next heard a loud boom “like (the pilot) turned on his afterburners,” which would have increased the jet’s thrust. The F-16 turned around a short time later and came back, Patrick said.
Another boom resounded “like a big shotgun went off,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Cessna suddenly started to climb just before the impact, Capt. Robert McCullough of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said later after talking with officials.
“Witnesses have indicated the Cessna was flying along, pulled up, and the jet went through it,” he said.
The F-16 struck the Cessna broadside, said Salisbury, who also leads the county’s volunteer rescue squad.
Wayne Ware, who lives on McCrae Drive just south of the plantation, heard the collision as he went for a walk.
“I didn’t see it; I heard it,” Ware said. “I turned around, and I saw the jet. Pieces started falling out of the sky. His engine is lying right there at the campground.”
‘Parts ... in our yard’
The Cessna went down into a watery rice field. First-responders later found a large part of the fuselage in about 2 feet of water.
The crippled jet veered leftward.
Debris spread out over the plantation property and for a lengthy stretch southward.
Ware saw that an aircraft engine had fallen and clipped a recreational vehicle near Berkeley Yacht Club & Marina, where people live in their RVs. No injuries were reported on the ground.
Kathryn Dennis, a star of Bravo TV’s “Southern Charm” reality television show whose family owns Lewisfield Plantation, was home when she “heard some crash sounds.” Sirens wailed for a while after that.
“There are pieces of aircraft around the rice fields,” she said. “There are parts of the plane in our yard.”
First responders reported seeing a “debris field” from the F-16 near Medway Plantation, which is nearly 10 miles to the south of the initial site. Johnson, the pilot, touched down in a field near the plantation with a parachute.
“The aircraft could still be flyable for a period of time,” Jost, the Air Force official, said. “The decision to eject ... is a quick one.”
A Coast Guard helicopter lowered a rescuer to tend to the fighter pilot while responders raced toward him on the ground.
Johnson later managed to walk to a pickup driven by plantation employees, and he rode the truck to a waiting ambulance.
A Berkeley County Emergency Medical Services crew said that Johnson was all right, but he was taken to Joint Base Charleston for evaluation.
He was expected to return to Shaw late Tuesday, Jost said, and he could resume flight duty as early as next week.
A ‘workhorse’ fighter
Officials from Shaw Air Force Base released information for people looking to make legal claims as a result of damage caused by the wreckage.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the civilian crew,” Jost added during a news conference.
Photos taken by onlookers of the F-16 wreckage showed “55” and a pair of dice painted amid a blue and white checkered pattern on the tail section. The 55th Fighter Squadron is part of the 20th Fighter Wing based at Shaw. The wing also hosts the 77th and 79th fighter squadrons and provides facilities, personnel and material for the base’s operation.
Since the first flight of the F-16 in 1974, aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin has led the design and development of the Fighting Falcon by providing structural and avionics upgrades. The company calls it “the workhorse of the fighter fleet for 28 customers around the world.”
But the jet has been involved in several of the most serious military aircraft crashes in the Charleston area.
In 2005, two crewmembers ejected from an F-16 after its power failed entirely. The plane crashed into a marshy area of the Ashley River in Charleston and burst into flames.
Two F-16s collided during a nighttime mission in 2009, killing one pilot while the other managed to safely land in Charleston. Pilot error was said to be to blame for that collision.
Emergency personnel on Tuesday were told not to touch any of the jet parts, whether in the woods or on the water, according to radio communications. Responders also were told to stay upwind of the F-16 crash site because of the potential for exposure to hydrazine, a toxic fuel used by the aircraft’s emergency power unit.
But Jost said the plane was not carrying munitions and should not pose a lingering threat to the public after an initial fire burned out.
Much will be learned about what led to the crash once investigators review radar histories and the F-16’s flight recorder, or “black box,” said Brauchle, the former military pilot.
During instrument approach training, the fighter pilot would have been using instruments as a guide during pre-landing procedures, Brauchle said. Such instruments can give the plane’s vertical and lateral orientation in relation to an airstrip, he said.
The plane’s autopilot can be used in such situations, or a navigator can “hand fly” the aircraft, Brauchle said. Recorded data would help determine how Johnson was flying the plane.
Investigators also will look at whether air traffic controllers had spotted the Cessna on their instruments, he said.
“You have a small airplane not under radar control,” he said. “More than likely, the signal off a Cessna 150 is not very strong.”
Schuyler Kropf, Dave Munday, Brenda Rindge and Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
Military crashes in S.C. since 2005
April 18, 2005: An Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16DJ Block 50D Fighting Falcon, of the 55th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Wing, based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter crashes in a marsh next to the Ashley River in Charleston. The two crew members, Maj. Steve Granger and Lt. Col. Maurice Salcedo, both assigned to Ninth Air Force Stan Eval and flying with the 77th Fighter Squadron, ejected safely. Both the main power and backup power failed moments before the crash, the pilot said.
April 21, 2007: A Navy Blue Angels McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet crashes into a residential neighborhood while performing at an airshow in Beaufort, killing the pilot. Military investigators blame pilot for his fatal crash. A report obtained by The Associated Press said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis got disoriented and crashed after not properly tensing his abdominal muscles to counter the gravitational forces of a high-speed turn.
Oct. 15, 2009: Pilot error is blamed in the fatal two-plane collision that killed an F-16 flier during a training exercise off the South Carolina coast. Air Force Capt. Nicholas Giglio died in the crash and was faulted for the accident in which instructor-pilot Capt. Lee Bryant was able to recover safely before landing his damaged jet at Charleston Air Force Base. Both fliers had left from Shaw Air Force Base for a nighttime mission. According to the flight’s timetable, at about 10:24 p.m. the planes were returning to Shaw when Giglio performed what was described as an “improper night rejoin” that failed to properly account for the position of the other plane.
Mar. 10, 2010: A Marine Corps McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18D Hornet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, about 35 miles east of St. Helena Sound after a double engine failure and a fire. Both pilots ejected and were floating in an inflatable life raft for about an hour before they were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
May 2, 2010: An Army Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter carrying two soldiers of the 116th Aviation Group was participating in a routine drill when it crashed on a ramp while taxiing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base shortly before 2 p.m. Both crew members were taken to a hospital. Pilot 1st Lt. Jonathan Shively, Jr, 33, of Jamestown, died of his injuries, but second pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Roger Carpenter, 46, of Spartanburg, was in stable condition.
Source: Websites and Post and Courier archives
Authorities investigate a multiple plane crash in Moncks Corner.×
Authorities used Lewisfield Plantation in Berkeley County as a staging area for the search effort following the collision of a military jet and a small civilian airplane Tuesday.×
Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury answered questions Tuesday at a press conference concerning the collision of a military jet and a small civilian airplane in Moncks Corner.×
Authorities are investigating a multiple plane crash in Moncks Corner.×
A Berkeley County sheriff’s deputy controls access to Lewisfield PlantationTuesday, July 7, 2015, site of some of the debris from an apparent collision between an military jet and a small civilian airplane in Moncks Corner.×
Law enforcement uses Lewisfield Plantation along the Cooper River as a staging area following the collision of a military jet and a small civilian airplane in Berkeley County on Tuesday..×