The automatic distress signal came in to the Coast Guard about 10:30 p.m. Thursday: A D.C. Air National Guard pilot had ejected from a fighter jet some 35 miles off Chincoteague Island in Virginia.
As a rescue team sprang into action, another fighter pilot was flying a damaged F-16C Fighting Falcon back to the D.C. air guard's headquarters at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County. Two others were circling the site where the fighters had collided.
One jet was lost, to the likely tune of more than $20 million, and another was damaged. But by early Friday, the pilots were accounted for.
"We are extremely fortunate to have lost only metal," said Brig. Gen. Marc Sasseville, commander of the 113th Wing of the D.C. air guard.
The two pilots clipped wings during a routine training exercise. The rescue went on for several hours late Thursday and early Friday, as the Coast Guard deployed a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from its air station in Elizabeth City, N.C., south of Virginia Beach.
At first, the Coast Guard team followed the distress signal toward the downed pilot. The pilot had ejected with a small life raft and was bobbing in the ocean as the other pilots maintained communications from their jets streaking across the sky above.
The downed pilot lit a flare that could be seen for almost two miles, Coast Guard Petty Officer David Weydert said. As the Coast Guard team got closer, the two jet pilots still flying relayed information from their downed companion.
The Jayhawk arrived at the crash scene about midnight, Weydert said, and the team immediately began to assess the waters around the small raft to see if debris from the jet would endanger a rescue swimmer, Weydert said. Not seeing any debris, the team proceeded with the rescue, dropping Petty Officer 1st Class Bret Fogle down a line to the water.
Fogle made contact with the downed pilot on his raft, who was in good condition. Both Fogle and the pilot were hoisted back into the Jayhawk, which wrapped up the rescue about 12:30 a.m. and headed to Joint Base Andrews, Weydert said.
The National Guard has not released the names of any of the pilots involved in the training exercise.
By the time the Coast Guard team made it to Andrews, the pilot of the damaged plane had already returned safely.
Both pilots were taken to the Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic and Surgery Center on the base, the National Guard said. The one whose jet was damaged has been released, officials said. The one who ejected was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries.
"Our partners here at Joint Base Andrews and the Coast Guard did a fantastic job of supporting us through this unfortunate circumstance," Sasseville said in a statement. "The military has some of the best and most highly trained people in the world, which reduced the potential magnitude of this incident."
Sasseville said training is the "foundation" of the National Guard's work, and the collision will be studied to improve operations. The cause is under investigation.
The 113th Wing is tasked with defending Washington, sending fighters overseas, and transporting troops and cargo in domestic emergencies.
The F-16C is considered the workhorse of the Air Force. Lockheed Martin, the builder, calls it "the most technologically advanced fourth-generation fighter in the world."
According to Air Force records of "Class A" mishaps — those resulting in a death, the loss of an aircraft or at least $2 million in damage — the last crash involving an F-16C occurred in Fresno, Calif., in December, when a pilot lost control of a jet during a training exercise.
The pilot ejected and survived, and the jet crashed in a desolate area of government land and was destroyed, according to an Air Force report on the incident. The Air Force put the cost of the lost jet at $21,405,503.
In fiscal year 2012, there were 23 Class A flight incidents, two of which involved F-16Cs.
In July 2012, a jet flown by a pilot on a deployment sortie near Misawa Air Base in Japan lost thrust and crashed. The pilot survived after ejecting. The bill: $32,610,492.
In May 2012, a jet flown by a pilot conducting close air support training with another aircraft experienced an engine failure and crashed near the Utah Test and Training Range west of Hill Air Force Base. The pilot ejected and survived; the cost was estimated at $23,869,281.
In fiscal year 2011, at least five F-16Cs crashed in the United States, South Korea and Afghanistan, four of them in the span of a month, according to Air Force records. Air Force officials characterized the spike as an "anomaly."
Information on the extent of damage to the aircraft that was able to return to base was not immediately available, a National Guard spokeswoman said.
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