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May 30, 2007

PHOTO UPDATE: F-15 fighter jet crashes in southwestern Indiana

Pilot ejects safely says military spokeswoman

VINCENNES — An Air National Guard pilot with 15 years’ experience escaped serious injury Wednesday when he ejected from his F-15, just moments before the fighter jet crashed into a southwestern Indiana farm field during a training exercise.

The jet from the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Fighter Wing went down at 9:49 a.m. CDT in a lightly populated rural area near the Indiana-Illinois state line, south of Vincennes, the Air Guard said.

Missouri Air National Guard Col. Greg Champagne said the pilot, whom he declined to identify, parachuted to the ground and was in good condition. Guard officials declined to discuss his injuries, citing military privacy policies.

“He’s an experienced pilot — flying over 15 years,” Champagne said during a news conference at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, where the 131st Fighter Wing is headquartered.

The crash occurred during practice maneuvers involving four F-15s from St. Louis and four F-16 jets from the Indiana Air National Guard’s 181st Fighter Wing, based in Terre Haute, the Guard said. The other jets were not damaged and no injuries on the ground were reported, the Guard said.

Smoke was still visible several hours after the jet crashed into a field between two farm houses and near large power lines in the area about 40 miles north of Evansville. No live munitions were on the plane, but officials urged people to stay clear of the crash site out of concern that some of the burning material could be hazardous, said Col. Chris Colbert, vice commander of the 181st Fighter Wing, which was helping investigate.

Investigators were unable to immediately get close to the smoldering wreckage, which was mostly below ground, Colbert said.

Witness Willie Mayberry told Evansville television station WFIE that he saw two jets dogfighting before the crash.

“I saw one of them make a loop and start to lose altitude,” he said. “Then all of a sudden I saw the pilot eject, the seat separated from him and I saw the parachute open. Then all of a sudden, the jet hit the ground. I saw a billow of black smoke and then a big old ball of fire.”

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