NORFOLK, Va. – Two Air National Guard fighter jets clipped each other's wings midair, forcing one of the pilots to eject into the ocean and be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter a few hours later off the Virginia coast, officials said Friday.
The other pilot involved in the collision was able to fly back to Joint Base Andrews, Md. Both jets were from the 113th Wing D.C. Air National Guard and were on a routine training mission Thursday night when the collision happened about 35 miles southeast of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Capt. Michael Odle, chief of public affairs for the air wing, said the single seat F-16C Fighting Falcons collided when their wings clipped each other. Odle didn't specify the exact maneuvers the pilots were going through, but he noted that the air wing's pilots are frequently called upon to intercept aircraft that enter restricted airspace or lose communications in the Washington area. Those intercepts typically require aircraft to fly in close proximity.
The Air National Guard has not released the names of the pilots involved, but Odle said both are experienced pilots. One is a captain, and the other is a lieutenant colonel.
The Coast Guard said the pilot of the jet who was rescued early Friday is in good condition. Odle said the other pilot has already been evaluated by medical staff and released.
"We are extremely fortunate to have lost only metal, and not the life of one of our Airmen," Brig. Gen. Marc Sasseville, 113th Wing commander, said in a statement.
The Coast Guard said it was alerted to the pilot's ditching by a distress signal from his ejection seat at about 10:30 p.m. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that was based at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C. arrived around midnight, according to the Coast Guard. It was faster to send the helicopter instead of a small boat from Chincoteague, said Petty Officer David Weydert, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 5th District in Portsmouth, Va. At the time of the rescue, seas in the area were about 4 feet high.
Three other planes were also taking part in the training, and one remained in the area to help guide Coast Guard rescuers to the downed pilot, Odle said. The downed pilot was wearing a life vest and had a handheld radio with him in his life raft that enabled him to communicate with the pilot that remained in the area, according to the Coast Guard. That pilot relayed the information until the Coast Guard helicopter could get close enough to communicate directly.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Bret Fogle, the rescue swimmer on the operation, said it was pitch black outside during the rescue, but the downed pilot followed his training and lit rescue flares so he could be found. He said the pilot's demeanor was calm when he reached him, even though his right knee was in an incredible amount of pain. He said putting the pilot on a board so he could be lifted into the helicopter felt like he was putting the pilot's knee through torture because it was swollen to the size of a grapefruit and appeared to be broken.
"He was actually just a very tough dude. When I saw his knee and saw how he was handling it, the first thing in my mind was like, 'How the hell do you get in this raft and why are you so calm?' His training kicked in obviously, because he did everything right."
Fogle said he's been a rescue swimmer for 13 years. This is the first time he or anyone else he knows has rescued a pilot that's had to eject into the water, but he said the Coast Guard regularly trains for such a scenario. He said the rescue was the highlight of his career.
"We'll usually rescue civilian fishermen or cruise ships," he said. "To actually be able to get the opportunity to help somebody out, to help this caliber of a person for what he does for our country and everything, is just a really neat feeling."