An F-16 fighter jet that was on a training mission crashed Wednesday morning in Maryland a few miles south of Joint Base Andrews. The pilot parachuted to safety, authorities said, and there were no reported injuries.
Base officials said in a statement that the plane was an F-16C fighter jet from the Air National Guard’s 113th Wing. The crash happened around 9:15 a.m., about six miles southwest of the base. The 113th Wing has its headquarters at the base.
“The aircraft was flying along with other DCANG [D.C. Air National Guard] aircraft in a routine training mission in the greater Washington area. The aircraft carried only the pilot,” Andrews base said in a statement. They also said “the pilot ejected and sustained non-life threatening injuries.”
Many area residents said they heard the sound of fighter jets as early as 7 a.m. Wednesday, but since they are so close to the military base, they said they are used to hearing such sounds.
But a couple of hours later, some reported hearing a loud bang. Some worried it was a bomb. Many saw smoke and flames, but couldn’t see exactly where the plane had crashed. Officials later said the plane crashed about 200 yards from any homes in the area.
Patrick Dodson, 38, saw the plane hit near his house and in the course of running to aid the pilot was struck by what he believes was shrapnel from the explosion.
Dodson happened to be on his porch in Clinton when he looked up to see a jet flying low and billowing smoke. A figure suddenly shot up and away from the plane and a parachute popped open almost instantly. Dodson watched the pilot drifting as the plane pitched sharply in a nose dive, heading his way.
He screamed to his mother, sister and 4-year-old nephew to get out of the house as he dashed off the porch and ran toward the drifting pilot. The plane was still coming, making a deep whoop-whoop-whoop until it went down on the far side of the houses across the street and erupted in a fireball that knocked Dodson off his feet.
He jumped up and kept running, only to feel sharp stings in his arm and hand. He pulled a small piece of metal from his thumb, so hot he dropped it immediately. He could hear the whizzing of what sounded like bullets in the trees, and he ducked momentarily around the corner of a house.
“I just tried to keep my eye on the pilot,” Dodson said in an interview. “I was worried that he was heading into the woods.”
After about 12 minutes of running through the trees, he saw a Prince George’s Police Helicopter land in a nearby field. Skirting the rotating blades, he saw the pilot standing at the edge of trees, untangling himself from his parachute cords.
“Are you okay,” Dodson said, coming up and breathing hard.
“Yes,” the pilot answered. “Is everyone okay? I tried to stay away from the neighborhood.”
“I think you did. I think it hit the woods,” Dodson said. “Were you carrying live ammo?”
Dodson said the pilot hesitated, then nodded. “Yes,” he said.
A military helicopter landed. The pilot shook Dodson’s hand, said “Thank you” and began to speak into his handheld radio.
“I just turned around and ran back out of there,” Dodson said.
Prince George’s County Fire Department could not say whether there were live rounds on the jet, saying a spokesman from Joint Base Andrews was expected to speak with the media later Wednesday afternoon. Residents of the neighborhood reported hearing pops from the crash site for up to 10 minutes following the explosion.
The plane went down in the 4700 block of Woodelves Way, according to fire department spokesman Mark Brady. First responders found the downed F-16 in a wooded area, he said. The pilot was picked up by military personnel and taken to a hospital.
The fire department evacuated about 20 homes within the immediate area, Brady said. Small brushfires occurred in the area, but no homes or structures were damaged, and no one was injured.
“They did find parts of the plane that were burning in the wooded areas behind the home that were on fire,” Prince George’s County Fire Department chief Ben Barksdale said.
The crash could be seen from as far away as the Braddock Road Metro station. One rider — Ben Huber who works at the Pentagon — said he was standing on the platform just after 9 a.m. when “the sky filled with a roar.” “I thought it might be a passenger plane taking off but it was way louder,” Huber said.
Officials with the Prince George’s County Fire Department said on their Twitter feed that they were deleting “any video and pictures posted” on social media of the crash area per the request of military police who are on the scene. The military is the lead investigator of the incident.
Brady told NBC 4 in an interview that he did not know if the plane was inbound or outbound to the base.
Those who were evacuated to a nearby elementary school were told at about 11 a.m. that they could return to their homes.
Clinton Grove Elementary School was on lockdown following the crash, according to Raven Hill, spokesman for Prince George’s County schools. The school used a robo-call system to inform parents of the nearby crash and also sent a letter home with students, according to Hill.
Brady said in a tweet that if anyone in the neighborhood “finds what they believe to be a part of the aircraft — do not touch/move-call” authorities.
Officials said the crash site itself is about 40 yards long and 40 yards wide and sits between two residential communities at the end of a cul-de-sac that is mostly open space and woods. The crash site sits about a mile from Mount Enon Baptist Church along Piscataway Road.
The crash near a residential neighborhood raised concerns among some on the ground that people could have been hurt.
“We are very fortunate that we didn’t have any lives lost today,” Barksdale said.
In 2014, a small jet plane coming from North Carolina crashed into a house in Gaithersburg, killing six.
Frederick Simms, who lives near the field adjacent to the crash, said he is used to hearing the sound of jets and planes overhead being next to the base, but the noises from this morning were “too loud.”
“I just heard a rumbling sound and the wall shaking,” Simms said. “I thought, ‘Get up!’
The retiree said he immediately popped out of bed, and minutes later saw news of the crash on the television.
“I ran the heck out,” of the house, Simms said, as he waited at a nearby farm stand.
The F-16 has been flown by the U.S. military since the 1970s, and is used to fly combat missions over the Middle East. Formally known as the Fighting Falcon, it is referred to as the Viper by pilots.
The 113th Wing, known as the “Capital Guardians,” flies the F-16C variant of the plane, and provides fighters in defense of Washington when needed. Senior U.S. officials authorized pilots from the wing to shoot down aircraft, if necessary, after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. F-16s from the wing’s 121st Fighter Squadron intercepted a Cessna aircraft within a few miles of the White House in 2005.
Lori Aratani, Lynh Bui and Mandy McLaren contributed to this report.