By Ryan Lenz
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.”
Farmer Alfrey Frey said jets often practice in the skies above the area, which Colbert confirmed.
“They dogfight over us all the time,” the 79-year-old Frey said.
The jet that crashed was part of a training sortie in the Red Hill Military Operating Area, a military air space that stretches more than 150 miles from Illinois, near St. Louis, to Indiana.
The plane that crashed was built in 1978, but its age was not suspected as a cause of the accident, Champagne said. A preliminary report was expected in about 30 days, he said.
Dale McCrary, who lives about a mile away, said he and his son saw the plane spiral to the ground.
They drove to the crash site, where they saw the plane’s tail sticking up from the ground and the pilot on his back near the plane’s windshield.
“He was kind of white-ish looking,” McCrary said. “Just all shook up.”
Guard officials said the pilot was talking and standing after the crash and was being treated for minor injuries at a Vincennes hospital.
The crash was the third of a fighter jet in southern Indiana and Illinois since 2001.
On May 17, 2004, two F-16 fighter jets from the 181st Fighter Wing collided during routine training near Vincennes. One of the pilots was killed, and the second parachuted to safety.
In July 2001, an F-16 from the 181st Fighter Wing crashed just over the Indiana-Illinois state line near Parkersburg, Ill., about 70 miles southwest of Terre Haute. The pilot ejected safely.