AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) – The pilot of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird that crashed following a flyover met with President Barack Obama shortly after safely ejecting safely into a Colorado field.
News of the crash broke while Obama’s motorcade was returning to Peterson Air Force Base on Thursday for his flight back to Washington. The pilot ejected about 15 miles south of the academy, near Peterson Air Force Base where Air Force One was waiting to take off.
The Air Force identified the pilot as Maj. Alex Turner, of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. He has more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq.
“The president thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
It was the second fighter jet crash of the day for the military’s elite fighter jet performance teams. The Navy says a Blue Angels F/A-18 fighter jet crashed near Nashville, Tennessee, where the team was practicing for a scheduled performance this weekend. WKRN reported that one person has died in that crash.
In Colorado, the Thunderbirds had just finished their traditional performance at commencement for Air Force Academy cadets, screaming overhead just as the graduating officers tossed their white hats skyward.
The jets then did multiple fly-bys over the academy’s football stadium, where the ceremony 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.
“What I heard was a big boom,” said Justin Payne, who was working on wallpaper inside his house when the plane struck the ground. “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.
During a performance at the Chicago Air and Water Show in 2005, two of the jets made contact while they were flying in formation, and a missile rail was dislodged. No one was injured in that accident.
The group was in a diamond formation when a 4-foot-long missile rail came loose from the wing of one of their jets. The carbon fiber object fell into Lake Michigan, roughly 2,500 feet from where spectators had gathered to watch the show. No one was hurt.
Two years earlier, a Thunderbird jet crashed at an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho as about 85,000 spectators looked on. The pilot safely ejected with only minor injuries.
Associated Press writer James Anderson contributed to this report.