The following Idaho Statesman story was published Sept. 15, 2003.

Thousands watch in shock; pilot ejects safely

Spectators watched in shock Sunday as an F-16C jet, one of the U.S. Air Force’s elite Thunderbirds aerial performers, slammed into the ground and exploded at the Gunfighter Skies 2003 air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base.

The pilot ejected safely and no spectators were injured. But the crash sent a fireball and smoke into the sky in front of tens of thousands of eyewitnesses.

Marc Auth of Boise said at first he didn’t realize the jet was about to hit the ground.

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“My first impression was that it was a low-speed pass except that something wasn’t right, “ said Auth, a freelance photographer. “When it exploded, it was surreal.”

The crowd seemed frozen when the jet crashed, said George Avery of New Orleans, who was visiting his son, John, who is stationed at Mountain Home.

“Nobody moved until after they announced that the air show was finished, “ Avery said. “I was amazed how quiet everyone was as they were leaving. It wasn’t until we were walking off the base, I said to my wife ‘I’m actually trembling.’ “

The crash happened about 3:15 p.m., shortly after the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration started. The jet, valued at about $18.8 million, was the last of six Thunderbirds jets to take off.

“He went up and did a loop, and the plane came down. I was saying to myself ‘pull up, pull up, ‘ and that was it, “ John Avery said. “He’s brave.”

The pilot, Capt. Chris Stricklin, 31, of Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., safely ejected and was treated by military medical personnel. Spectators said the pilot stood up and waved to the crowd before falling to the ground.

Featured image of Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho — Capt. Christopher Stricklin ejecting from the USAF Thunderbirds number six aircraft less than a second before it impacted the ground at an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Sept. 14. via U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho — Capt. Christopher Stricklin ejects from the USAF Thunderbirds number six aircraft less than a second before it impacted the ground at an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Sept. 14.