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Navy declares pilot dead in Hornet crash in California’s Death Valley

This photo taken from video provided by KABC-TV shows where a Navy fighter jet crashed Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Death Valley National Park, Calif., injuring multiple people who were at a scenic overlook where aviation enthusiasts routinely watch military pilots speeding low through a chasm dubbed Star Wars Canyon, officials said.

KABC-TV/AP

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 31, 2019

WASHINGTON — The pilot of an F/A-18E Super Hornet was killed Wednesday when the fighter jet crashed into a ravine wall in California’s Death Valley during a routine training flight, Navy officials said Thursday as they called off an effort to recover the pilot’s missing body.

“The Navy has confirmed that the pilot of the F/A-18E Super Hornet that crashed July 31st died in the crash,” said Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Bock, a spokeswoman for the Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Pacific.

The collision occurred in a Death Valley National Park gorge known as Star Wars Canyon, where witnesses said the jet crashed nose first into that canyon wall at high speed. The pilot, whose identity was not released Thursday, was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 151 based at California’s Naval Air Station Lemoore, Bock said.

The pilot’s name was expected to be released about 24 hours after family notification, per Pentagon policy. The pilot’s family was notified earlier Thursday of the death declaration, an official said on the condition of anonymity.

“The Navy mourns the loss of one of our own, and our hearts go out to the family and friends affected by this tragedy,” Bock said in a statement.

Photographs at the scene of the wreck showed the single-seat fighter jet to be a complete loss after the crash at about 10 a.m. local time. Star Wars Canyon is a popular spot for tourists and photographers to watch military planes weave through desert ravines at high speed.

National Park officials said seven people in the area were injured during the crash. Park spokesman Patrick Taylor told NPR that those injuries were minor.

The jet crash occurred about 40 miles from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, a sprawling Navy installation about 125 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. The service has used the China Lake base for missile and rocket development since the 1940s.

An investigation launched Wednesday had yet to determine the cause of the crash, the Navy said.

National park visitors told local news stations that the jet slammed into the canyon wall while traveling at a high rate of speed, sending billowing smoke into the air and shrapnel flying into a crowd nearby. The section of Death Valley National Park where the crash occurred remained closed to visitors Thursday afternoon, according to the park's website.

Local resident Aaron Cassell reported the crash from a resort about 10 miles away after seeing the smoke, he told The Associated Press.

"I just saw a black mushroom cloud go up," he told the news agency, comparing the impact to a bomb blast. "Typically you don't see a mushroom cloud in the desert."

Cassell said he saw a second jet trailing the crashed Hornet pull up out of the canyon and circle the area. He told the AP that he did not see a parachute deploy from his vantage point.

While military planes do not typically fly over National Park land, pilots have flown through Star Wars Canyon since World War II. Officially, the chasm is called Rainbow Canyon but has been known by its nickname for decades because of colorful rock walls reminiscent of Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker’s native planet of Tatooine, according to NPS.

A 2017 Associated Press profile of military flights through the gorge stated various jets fly 200 to 300 mph through the ravine, sometimes as low as 200 feet off the canyon floor, which is still several hundred feet below its top.

The adjacent China Lake base is the Navy’s largest landholding, according to the service. It includes two ranges that cover some 1.1 million square acres used for research, design and testing of dozens of types of Navy bombs.

The incident on Wednesday appeared to be the first reported crash of an F/A-18 in 2019.

The McDonnell Douglas-built supersonic fighter and attack jet, which can be launched from land or an aircraft carrier, has been plagued in recent years by crashes across the globe.

A Marine Hornet pilot was killed in December when his F/A-18 collided with a KC-130 Hercules aerial tanker off the coast of Japan. The cause of the crash remains under investigation, officials said this month. Another Hornet crashed in November in the Philippine Sea. Both pilots survived that wreck after ejecting following mechanical issues with the plane, an investigation found.

Marine and Navy officials have long blamed budget cuts and maintenance problems for the rash of Hornets wrecking during training flights.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

This photo provided by Panamint Springs Resort shows where a Navy fighter jet crashed Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Death Valley National Park, injuring several people who were at a scenic overlook where aviation enthusiasts routinely watch military pilots speeding low through a chasm dubbed Star Wars Canyon, officials said.
AARON CASSELL, PANAMINT SPRINGS RESORT/AP

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