A fighter pilot from Oceana Naval Air Station was in critical condition Wednesday after ejecting from his jet over the Atlantic Ocean.
The single-seat F/A-18 Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 143 went down about 2:35 p.m., said Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces Atlantic. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
The pilot ejected about 45 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach and was plucked from the water by a nearby fishing vessel before being hoisted by a rescue swimmer into an MH-60 Seahawk. The Navy helicopter had been flying in the area on a training mission.
It flew the pilot to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. He was pulled from the helicopter on a backboard, placed on a gurney and pushed inside; his head was up, and he appeared conscious.
Kafka said the pilot was listed in critical condition.
Former fighter pilots say it's difficult to describe the violent force of ejecting from an aircraft. When the ejection handles are pulled, rockets blast the canopy away from the jet, then fire the seat into the air before the main parachute is deployed.
The pilot and an emergency raft - part of the ejection mechanism - splashed down into chilly water: Ocean temperatures off the coast were between 40 and 50 degrees Wednesday. It was unclear how long the aviator was in the water before the commercial fishing crew arrived.
The jet was flying on a training mission with another Super Hornet. The other jet circled back and radioed for help.
The Navy's dock landing ship Oak Hill was nearby; it headed to the scene to collect debris and survey the wreckage. Two Coast Guard cutters, the Albacore and Elm, also responded.
The rescue helicopter was from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28, the same Norfolk-based Seahawk squadron that retrieved four sailors from the ocean a week ago, after a Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon crashed 18 miles off Cape Henry. Three of the five crew members aboard the downed helicopter died.
The fighter pilots assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 143 were conducting routine training off the coast. Known as the "Pukin' Dogs," the squadron is part of Carrier Air Wing 7, which returned to Virginia Beach in July after deployment aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Another Super Hornet assigned to a different squadron in the air wing crashed into the North Arabian Sea in April after taking off from the Eisenhower. Both aviators ejected from the two-seat jet and were picked up by a rescue helicopter.
The Navy has not disclosed the cause of that crash.
Wednesday's crash was the second in two years involving a fighter jet flying out of Oceana. The Navy temporarily suspended training flights from the master jet base in April 2012 after a malfunctioning Super Hornet crashed into a Virginia Beach apartment complex shortly after taking off.
Flying continued Wednesday after the crash, Kafka said.