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Two dead after F-16 on training mission, Cessna collide in Berkeley County

By  Andrew Knapp an Bo Petersen, The Post and Courier 

A Sumter-based F-16 fighter jet on a training mission collided with a small airplane Tuesday morning in the sky over a Berkeley County rice plantation, killing two people on the private aircraft and sheering off metal parts that scattered over an 8-mile swath near Moncks Corner.

Air Force Maj. Aaron Johnson, a career pilot from Shaw Air Force Base, survived after safely ejecting from the damaged F-16C Fighting Falcon and parachuting into a field miles to the south of the collision site. Paramedics said he was alert and walking.

Both occupants of the Cessna 150C were presumed to be dead. A wallet was found amid the wreckage that fell near Lewisfield Plantation along the Cooper River about 25 miles north of Charleston. But crews were still looking for the victims’ bodies on land and in the water, the county coroner said. They were not named.

They had left minutes earlier from the Berkeley County Airport, which is about three miles to the northwest, the coroner said

Johnson, meanwhile, was on a solo mission to conduct “instrument approach training” at Joint Base Charleston, said Col. Stephen Jost, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at the pilot’s home base. He was still under “positive control” of Charleston air traffic controllers, Jost said, and was likely flying at 230 to 290 mph and between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above the ground.

Such midair collisions between civilian and military aircraft are rare because of the equipment and procedures in places to prevent them, Jost said.

“It’s a routine type of training mission that we do at Joint Base Charleston,” Jost said of Johnson’s mission. “Our pilots are well-trained to fly the approaches into and out of there.

“There are 100 factors that could have been at play here.”

A Washington-based investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to arrive Tuesday night in the Lowcountry to begin looking for the cause, agency spokesman Peter Knudson said. The Air Force also sent a forensics team to the site.

It was at least the sixth time that a military aircraft was involved in a significant crash in South Carolina. Half of those episodes involved F-16s from Shaw.

The pilot of the single-engine, two-seat Cessna announced just before 11 a.m. that the place was leaving the Berkeley County Airport en route to Myrtle Beach, Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury said.

Salisbury said the crew was still in touch with controllers at the airport when it collided with the jet at 11:01 a.m.

Several residents reported hearing what sounded like an explosion near Lewisfield Plantation, a sprawling property east of Old U.S. Highway 52 and south of Lake Moultrie.

Jack Patrick, 81, saw the F-16 fly southward while he was trimming the lawn outside his home on OT Wallace Boulevard. He next heard a loud boom “like (the pilot) turned on his afterburners,” which would have increased the jet’s thrust. The F-16 turned around a short time later and came back, Patrick said.

Another boom resounded “like a big shotgun went off,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Cessna suddenly started to climb just before the impact, Capt. Robert McCullough of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said later after talking with officials.

“Witnesses have indicated the Cessna was flying along, pulled up, and the jet went through it,” he said.

The F-16 struck the Cessna broadside, said Salisbury, who also leads the county’s volunteer rescue squad.

Wayne Ware, who lives on McCrae Drive just south of the plantation, heard the collision as he went for a walk.

“I didn’t see it; I heard it,” Ware said. “I turned around, and I saw the jet. Pieces started falling out of the sky. His engine is lying right there at the campground.”

The Cessna went down into a watery rice field. First-responders later found a large part of the fuselage in about 2 feet of water.

The crippled jet veered leftward.

Debris spread out over the plantation property and for a lengthy stretch southward.

Ware saw that an aircraft engine had fallen and clipped a recreational vehicle near Berkeley Yacht Club & Marina, where people live in their RVs. No injuries were reported on the ground.

Kathryn Dennis, a star of Bravo TV’s “Southern Charm” reality television show whose family owns Lewisfield Plantation, was home when she “heard some crash sounds.” Sirens wailed for a while after that.

“There are pieces of aircraft around the rice fields,” she said. “There are parts of the plane in our yard.”

First responders reported seeing a “debris field” from the F-16 near Medway Plantation, which is nearly 10 miles to the south of the initial site. Johnson, the pilot, touched down in a field near the plantation with a parachute.

“The aircraft could still be flyable for a period of time,” Jost, the Air Force official, said. “The decision to eject … is a quick one.”

A Berkeley County Emergency Medical Services crew said that Johnson was all right, but he was taken to Joint Base Charleston for evaluation.

A Coast Guard helicopter lowered a rescuer to tend to the fighter pilot while responders raced toward him on the ground.

Johnson later managed to walk to a pickup driven by plantation employees, and he rode the truck to a waiting ambulance.

Officials from Shaw Air Force Base released information for people looking to make legal claims as a result of damage caused by the wreckage.

“Our thoughts and prays go out to the civilian crew,” Jost added during a news conference.

Photos taken by onlookers of the F-16 wreckage showed “55” and a pair of dice painted amid a blue and white checkered pattern on the tail section. The 55th Fighter Squadron is part of the 20th Fighter Wing based at Shaw. The wing also hosts the 77th and 79th fighter squadrons and provides facilities, personnel and material for the base’s operation.

Since the first flight of the F-16 in 1974, aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin has led the design and development of the Fighting Falcon by providing structural and avionics upgrades. The company calls it “the workhorse of the fighter fleet for 28 customers around the world.”

But the jet has been involved in several of the most serious military aircraft crashes in the Charleston area.

In 2005, two crewmembers ejected from an F-16 after its power failed entirely. The plane crashed into a marshy area of the Ashley River in Charleston and burst into flames.

Two F-16s collided during a nighttime mission in 2009, killing one pilot while the other managed to safely land in Charleston. Pilot error was said to be to blame for that collision.

Emergency personnel on Tuesday were told not to touch any of the jet parts, whether in the woods or on the water, according to radio communications. Responders also were told to stay upwind of the F-16 crash site because of the potential for exposure to hydrazine, a toxic fuel used by the aircraft’s emergency power unit.

But Jost said the plane was not carrying munitions and should not pose a lingering threat to the public.

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