KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Air Force investigators are trying to find out what caused a landing gear problem on an F-16 during a training mission Thursday, forcing the pilot to eject near Spangdahlem Air Base.

Dozens of airmen aided by floodlights worked through the night to help identify and protect debris from the crash.

The F-16 from the 52nd Fighter Wing’s 22nd Fighter Squadron plowed into farmland outside the village of Oberkail and into some trees on Thursday. The pilot ejected and safely landed about a mile away and is in good condition. The pilot was identified Friday as 1st Lt. Trevor Merrell, 28, from Mountain Green, Utah.

Residents in the town said they heard the crash and immediately knew it was a plane. The village is only a few miles from the airfield, and Germans in the area are accustomed to the roar of American fighter jets soaring overhead.

“I heard the plane and then, ‘pow!’” said Christian Kalle, who lives a little more than a mile from where the plane crashed.

Petra Berens said she heard a bang and then the sounds of firetrucks moments later.

“I thought it was a plane,” she said through a translator. “I never before heard such a noise.”

There were no reports of injuries on the ground. News of the crash and the more than 35 Air Force and German police vehicles that rushed to the scene brought small packs of curious onlookers with binoculars in tow.

Emergency response teams set up a 5,000-foot cordon around the crash site for safety, and the Air Force encouraged local residents not to pick up or touch any debris they find.

Crews set up tents as trucks brought in power generators to help the crew. An investigation board has been set up to find the cause of the crash. Investigators have the tedious task of trying to locate every piece of debris in an effort to help them determine how the crash happened.

Col. Darryl Roberson, the 52nd commander, said Thursday that the pilot noticed the gear problem toward the end of a training mission.

There was enough time for airmen at Spangdahlem to call experts from F-16 maker Lockheed Martin to see if they could fix the problem while the pilot orbited the area.

The plane ran out of fuel before the malfunction could be fixed, and the pilot performed what is called a controlled bailout.

Pilots train regularly for such situations and discuss procedures as part of their preflight briefings.

“In fact, part of their briefings before the flight today included a situation that was similar to this,” Roberson said. “We cover these types of situations all of the time.

“The controlled bailout procedures are in our in-flight guide. It’s part of our standard operating procedures. So, it’s a known procedure.

“And, fortunately, when you can do a controlled bailout, chances are things are going to go better for you as opposed to an uncontrolled bailout where things are really going bad in a hurry.”

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