A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet went down off the coast of Key West Florida on Wednesday afternoon. Both the pilot and weapons officer were recovered by search and rescue teams, but died soon thereafter.
Details have been sparse through official channels, but social media posts from witnesses as well as statements provided to local media outlets have begun to form a picture of what may have gone wrong.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. local time, the two-seater Super Hornet was on approach near the Boca Chica Field, Naval Air Station Key West when witnesses reported seeing a fire break out on the aircraft, or potentially even an explosion. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that the aircraft was traveling under the power of a single engine after the second of the Super Hornet’s twin engines had failed, but as the aircraft closed in for a landing, the second engine went down as well, sending the jet plummeting into the ocean.
“I saw the fire and then it just dropped,” said Barbie Wilson, a local woman who described the jet bursting into flames. “In the air, I saw fire.”
Images of the F/A-18F after the crash clearly show the landing gear and hook extended, only about a mile from the runway that could have saved the men’s lives.
Both the pilot and the weapons officer were able to eject, according to official Navy statements and confirmed by eyewitness testimony. Search and rescue teams were reportedly notified immediately and were able to find the downed aviators shortly after they hit the water.
“Search and rescue crews were notified shortly after the crash where they recovered both the pilot and weapons systems officer from the water approximately one mile east of the runway. Both were taken by ambulance to Lower Keys Medical Center,” the official Navy statement read.
Unfortunately, soon after arriving at Lower Keys Medical Center, both the pilot and weapons officer were declared dead. Thus far, no word on official cause of death has been reported. Based on the depth of the water seen in images of the aircraft, it seems possible, if not likely, that their injuries may have been a result of the landing, rather than conditions inside the cockpit prior to the crash.
Although a new defense budget has been approved, it seems possible that the engine failures that led to this tragedy could have been a result of poor maintenance brought about by financial constrictions created by continued resolution spending and sequestration. According to expert analysis, serious incidents involving U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Hornets and Super Hornets have increased by a whopping 44% since 2012, in large part because of limited flight training hours and equipment maintenance funding.
The identities of the pilots have not been released pending next of kin notifications. The Navy has already launched an investigation into the incident.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy