An Air Force F-117A stealth fighter jet performing at a Baltimore County air show yesterday afternoon broke apart in midair and crashed into a home in Middle River as thousands of horrified spectators watched.
The pilot ejected safely, but about a dozen people on the ground were slightly injured. An unoccupied single-family house in Bowleys Quarters was destroyed in the crash and ensuing fire. At least one other house, a camper, car and a truck also burned.
"We were watching this stealth fighter go through its maneuvers," said Glenn Dowell, who lives two doors from the crash site. "It did a dip and started to head straight up. And then the wing fell off."
The crash occurred minutes past 3 p.m. less than a half-mile from Glenn L. Martin State Airport, where about 12,000 people had paid $10 to $12 to watch the two-day annual air show, sponsored by the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce.
John Wolff, from New Jersey, thought the plane's actions were part of the show. "My first impression was, 'Hey, they're pulling something on us -- that plane isn't really going to crash,' " he said.
"Then it became apparent it was the real thing," Wolff added. "I never expected anything like that at all, and here it's happening right in front of my eyes."
John Stumpf, 13, and his brother, Jared, heard the crash, walked out of their home in Bowleys Quarters and saw the dazed pilot, Capt. Bryan Knight, who had parachuted into a driveway about 60 feet from where his plane went down.
"He turned and he looked at us and he said, 'I'm really sorry,' " John Stumpf said.
The $43 million arrowhead-shaped Nighthawk, one like those that flew the first missions in the Persian Gulf war against the most heavily defended Iraqi targets, had just completed three passes over the airport when trouble became apparent.
The pilot turned the nose upward, and suddenly pieces of the craft could be seen flying off. The plane flipped over and tumbled helplessly to the ground.
Thousands of spectators at the airport and on boats in nearby rivers watched as the plane went out of view behind a stand of trees. There was a loud explosion, followed by a plume of thick black smoke.
The pilot could be seen parachuting to the ground as the smoke from the destroyed craft rose in the sky.
Breakup of plane
Witnesses reported seeing the plane's left wing break apart and hit the tail, apparently taking out the jet's vertical stabilizer.
"The pilot stayed with it as long as he could, but you could see he didn't have control," said Marty Campanella, a commercial pilot in Baltimore who attended the air show.
"I would say the airplane came unglued."
The U.S. Coast Guard was using inflatable boats called in from Curtis Bay to search the Middle River for debris.
About 150 fire, police and military officials were scouring the crash site last night and had declared the area in Bowleys Quarters a "National Defense Area," which Pentagon officials described as routine in military crashes.
Residents of Bowleys Quarters, a hodgepodge of small waterfront bungalows, split-level homes and ranchers, were evacuated last night. People who live in the 800 block of Chester Road, a dead-end street off Frog Mortar Creek, were not allowed to return. The American Red Cross provided shelter for three families.
Residents who did not live on Chester Road were allowed to return to their homes. At least two busloads of soldiers arrived about 8: 45 p.m. to guard the crash site, which had been lighted and cordoned off.
Military officials detained photographers from The Sun and the Associated Press for about one hour and confiscated film they had taken of the crash site.
Police and fire officials said the owners of the house that was hit by the fighter jet were not home at the time.
Baltimore County firefighters took about 45 minutes to extinguish the blaze at the house that was destroyed, a neighboring house, a car, motor coach and a shed.
The plane carries 11,000 pounds of jet fuel.
Ill from fumes
At least six firefighters who inhaled toxic fumes from the fire became ill and were treated at two local hospitals. An undetermined number of residents also suffered nausea and had to be treated by paramedics.
Yesterday's accident was the second crash at the Chesapeake Air Show.
Seven years ago, at the first show, a pilot from Westminster was killed when his single-engine biplane slammed into a field near the main runway because he was unable to pull out of a spinning dive.
The flyby featuring the stealth fighter was to have been one of the tamer features of the air show. There were several acrobatic performances scheduled, including a barnstorming act featuring a helicopter that lands on the wing of a biplane and transfers a passenger in mid-air and a Piper J3 Cub that lands on top of a Ford pickup truck billed as "the world's smallest airport."
The crash was the third for the Nighthawk, a single-seat aircraft. The most recent was in 1995, when one crashed in New Mexico during a night training mission.
The aircraft that crashed yesterday is assigned to the 7th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
It was one of two F-117s temporarily located at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., to support community and military air shows in the eastern United States.
Ed Ziegenfuss, the executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, said his group had requested the stealth flyover but didn't know if it would occur until just a few days ago.
He said the plane was to fly "a very normal pattern. The plane appeared to be in some difficulty. I saw some debris fall from the airplane."
Air Force officials at the Pentagon said last night that the plane had taken off 257 miles to the north in Syracuse, N.Y. -- where it had performed in an air show -- to do a flyover at Martin State Airport and was then to head back to Langley.
Col. Virginia Pribyla, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the plane went into a "flat spin where it is completely and totally out of control." Pentagon officials did not dispute witnesses' accounts, but they would not confirm that the plane broke apart.
A seven-member board of inquiry to investigate the crash will be appointed by the head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Richard E. Hawley, who is based at Langley. It will include F-117 pilots and technical experts.
Officials said they recovered a flight-recorder box from the crash scene. Police and fire officials could not say last night how much of the plane was intact.
Brigadier General Bruce F. Tuxill, commander of the Maryland Air National Guard, said the Air Force "puts a lot of faith in that airplane," adding that the pilot was not trying "any type of radical maneuver at all."
Asked about a preliminary cause, Tuxill said it appeared to be "a structural failure of some sort. But that's supposition because we don't know exactly what happened with the airplane. We don't know whether there were any malfunctions with the engine. We don't know what went wrong with it."
Witnesses said it appeared that the pilot tried to avoid a residential area and waited until the last possible moment before ejecting from the plane.
Mark Alberding, 33, an aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin and a Glen Arm resident, said he was taking photos of the stealth when it went down.
"I had him in the view finder and I was tracking him, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said.
"I knew things like that weren't supposed to happen," Alberding added. "It appeared the pilot could not have recovered the aircraft. He had no choice but to eject."
Fred Trudel, 40, a volunteer for the Yankee Air Force Museum's Northeast Division in New Jersey, described the crash this way: "[The pilot] did his standard fly-by routine and was beginning to do this pullout. He began to pull out and got up to 1,200 feet and climbing when the right rear stabilizer broke from the airplane. The airplane pitched up. This snapped the nose off the airplane, where the avionics are located. Pieces kept falling off. We could see he was trying to point the airplane toward the water.
"I was worried the airplane was going to float back to us," said Trudel, of Carteret, N.J. "It was falling like a leaf. He was trying to control the airplane. It was a structural failing of the airplane. It was nothing the pilot did wrong, and there was nothing unusual about the flight."
Glenn Dowell, the man who lives two doors from the house that was hit, said his wife and 17-year-old daughter were inside at the time of the crash. He was returning from fishing and watched the plane from a nearby roads.
The siding on Dowell's house at 828 Chester Road was blistered by heat from the fire. The house at 826 Chester Road was damaged by fire.
The plane hit a single-story house at 824 Chester Road.
"The whole area has been evacuated," Dowell said last night. "We can't get to our house. We have the clothes on our back, three dogs and two kids."
The Bowleys Quarters neighborhood is less than a half-mile from the end of a runway at the airport, separated by the Frog Mortar Creek, which feeds the Middle River.
"This is the end of air shows," Dowell said. "They can have them somewhere else."
Pub Date: 9/15/97