A one hundred million dollar US Marine F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet crashed after clipping the wing of a Lockheed Martin KC-130J tanker refueling plane during a refueling exercise in Imperial County, California.
The pilot of a fuel tanker showed impressive skills when he touched down safely in a remote area of California and prevented injuries among the seven other crew members after a mid-air collision with the $100 million fighter jet.
It was unclear what happened to cause the F-35B to collide with the KC-130J tanker in the late afternoon Tuesday, said 1st Lt. Brett Vannier, a spokesman at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
The fighter jet was refueling when the collision occurred. The pilot ejected successfully from the F-35B. The tanker pilot landed the big aircraft on its belly in a field near the desert town of Thermal.
Military officials said the cause of the collision is under investigation and they could not discuss the damage to the aircraft or other details.
Aviation safety consultant and retired Marine Corps Col. Pete Field, a former director of the Naval Test Pilot School, who examined photos of the damaged tanker, said he does not know how things went wrong during what is generally a routine operation.
Mid-air refueling “on any airplane in the fighter world is something that pilots learn to do in their training command. It’s a basic thing,” Field said. “This shouldn’t have been done badly.”
Often the blame lies with the jet pilot who can approach a tanker too quickly or can get too close and not be able to compensate, Field said. But that is highly unusual with today’s radar systems and a sophisticated plane like the F-35B. The crash also occurred during the day when visibility should have been good.
There have been deadly accidents during mid-air refueling. On Dec. 6, 2018, a KC-130J and an F/A-18D collided during a night refueling off the coast of Japan, killing six U.S. Marines.
A military investigation found the fighter pilot was not experienced in mid-air refueling missions at night and unintentionally crossed over the top of the tanker, colliding with the rear of the KC-130J. Poor training was also a factor, the investigation found, and squadron leaders were fired as a result.
The F-35B is a single-seat combat aircraft that can take off and land conventionally and vertically. That plane crashed near the Salton Sea, an inland lake about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of downtown San Diego.
The four-engine turboprop tanker landed in Thermal, a small desert city in Riverside County about 125 miles (200 kilometers) northeast of downtown San Diego.
Though officials did not specify exactly what happened mid-air, recorded air traffic control audio between the KC-130J and Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, California, that was posted online reported that the jet had clipped the wings of the refueling plane during the mission.
Footage circulating on social media showed what appeared to be a jet diving into the ground before bursting into flames.
A spokesperson for the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma tells PEOPLE that the jet pilot and some crew members aboard the KC-130J suffered minor injuries and were treated following the incident.
The images show liquid pouring out of the tanker’s port wing and damage to the propeller blades, among other things.
Photos from the scene posted online by NBC Palm Springs show a military plane on its belly in a farm field near Thermal Airport.
Marine Corps Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.