A Navy F-14A Tomcat jet fighter crashed upside down into hangars at Gillespie Field on Monday morning after the two fliers aboard bailed out over downtown El Cajon.
The two aviators and three people in the hangars were seriously injured, and 19 aircraft and 13 vehicles were damaged or destroyed in the crash and fire that followed.
The jet had developed mechanical troubles while on a training flight over the ocean and was attempting to return to Miramar Naval Air Station, Navy spokesman Lt. David Wray said.
Further troubles caused the fliers to head for Gillespie, a general aviation airport about 10 miles southeast of Miramar. The two ejected from the high-performance jet fighter while the out-of-control plane was upside down doing barrel rolls over downtown El Cajon.
Witnesses said the plane, as if it had a mind of its own, then rolled on its back, pointed its nose toward the sky and descended slowly to the airport, where it veered west to crash into one hangar at 10:19 a.m., then skidded into a second hangar.
"Seconds later, there was a very loud explosion and a very large plume of orange fire and dark black smoke," said Jeffrey Thomas Napier, an off-duty San Diego police officer who was standing 500 yards away.
Lucky Landing Spot
The pilot of the jet suffered several broken bones and cuts. The second flier had a broken neck. The three people injured in hangars, one of which was occupied by Sky Dance Helicopter Operations, include a man who lost a leg and a helicopter mechanic who was burned over 35% of his body.
Navy officials said it was lucky that the jet was not carrying weapons and that it hadn't crashed in the residential and commercial areas near the airfield.
Asked if he felt fortunate that there were no fatalities, Miramar commanding officer Capt. Gary Hughes said, "Extremely so, especially when you are this close to El Cajon, a populated area."
The pilot was Lt. Cmdr. Jim Barnett, 36, a flight instructor with 10 years of experience flying F-14s. The other flier was Lt. (j.g.) Randy L. Furtado, 27, a radar intercept officer who was undergoing training.
The fliers radioed the Miramar tower shortly after 10 a.m. to report trouble with the plane's hydraulic system.
"They were trying to get home, they were trying to get back to Miramar," said Wray. "They were out over the ocean when they experienced the trouble. The problems over the ocean warranted them returning to home base. They were on their way back to Miramar when they decided to try to land at Gillespie Field."
The two did not ditch the plane over the ocean because the situation did not seem serious enough at that point, another Navy spokesman said.
On the way to Miramar, the fliers radioed that they were having trouble with the jet's hydraulic system, which controls the wing flaps. Flying without a hydraulic system, said Hughes, is "like taking the steering wheel off of your car."
Witnesses said the disabled jet began to spin out of control several miles from Gillespie. The crew bailed out about 3 miles from the airfield.
"The plane made about two or three barrel turns approximately 10,000 to 15,000 feet in the air," said Casey Groenendal, owner of Inky's Schwinn Bike Shop at 1018 Broadway, who was outside working on his truck when he saw the jet.
"The plane kept rolling like the pilot couldn't control it, then they bailed out," said Groenendal. He said debris from the plane fell in the area after the fliers had ejected. A page from a pilot's manual describing what to do in emergencies fell into Groenendal's parking lot.
"Either the plane was on automatic or it was an act of God that the plane got to Gillespie Field without the pilot flying it," he said.
Radar intercept officer Furtado landed in Wells Park, next to a mobile home park. He was found on the ground, with his parachute entangled in power lines. Paramedics said Furtado had a pulse but wasn't conscious or breathing when they arrived. He was reported in critical condition Monday night at Sharp Memorial Hospital with a broken neck.
Barnett landed in the middle of the 1100 block of East Main Street. The jolt of the hard landing threw him forward on his face. While paramedics treated him, Barnett, his face covered with blood, told his rescuers that the plane had lost its hydraulic system. He was taken to Mercy Hospital where he was treated for a broken arm, broken heels and cuts on his head and face. He was reported in good condition Monday night.
Once the fliers had ejected, the plane turned on its belly and descended slowly toward Gillespie. "It took a slow roll, banked to the left, which would have been northwest," said Larry Rae, who saw the pilots eject over his business in downtown El Cajon. "It was unmanned, but it appeared that it was going to land at the airport.
Wing Started to Drop
"It was stable," said Rae, whose business, Spirit, sets up ground crews and camera logistics for the ESPN television network. "That's the thing that is strongest in my mind. It was stable."
Napier said he saw the airplane fly over California 67, which is directly east of the airport. "It was nose up, inverted, gear up," said Napier. "I saw it mush along.
"As it crossed Highway 67, it went north of us and was headed almost directly at the control tower," said Napier. "When it passed the airport administration building, the left wing started to drop and it began a roll to the west. I would estimate that it was 800 to 1,000 feet off the ground."
Its left wing dragging, the airplane plowed into one of the hangar buildings on the edge of the airport, Napier said.
After the explosion, Napier and airport employees began pulling the injured out of the burning buildings.
Nelson Powell, a captain with the La Mesa Fire Department, was attending a meeting about 3 blocks from the airport at the time of the crash and was one of the first firefighters on the scene.
Powell said he watched the inverted plane descend on Gillespie.
"We thought that the pilot was still in the aircraft," said Powell. "The plane was flying in slow motion, like a piece of paper thrown up into the wind. The engine was still running and it was running on its own power. Then it (the plane) sort of dropped like a rock.
"I saw two people trying to pull someone out of the hangar," Powell continued. "They pulled out one person who was severely burned. The door to the hangar was blown off by the impact of the crash.
"I went back inside to see if there were any more people inside," he said. "When I went back in, I found the first victim's leg and brought it back to where he was."
Norm Best said he was working a short distance away at another hangar when he watched the jet fighter head north across the airport, then make a 120-degree turn to its landing at the helicopter hangar next door.
Best said that, after the jet's impact, he ran over to pull people out of the fiery debris.
Covered With Blood
"Looking to see what was going on over there, there was this guy who was struggling through the rubble to get out. I helped him out," said Best, his right shoulder and arm covered with blood from the man he helped out of the debris.
Injured were William Grant, 35, who lost a leg and was listed in critical condition Monday night at Sharp Memorial Hospital; Brian Jollis, 40, a helicopter mechanic, who was listed in critical condition at UC San Diego Medical Center with second- and third-degree burns on 35% of his body and a broken leg and rib, and Bill Eulrich, 39, who suffered smoke inhalation and was listed in fair condition at UC San Diego Medical Center.
El Cajon fire officials said 19 aircraft, 13 vehicles and 20 individual hangars in the two hangar buildings were destroyed or damaged; no estimate of the cost of the damage was available Monday.
Nearly 100 firefighters from El Cajon, San Diego, Santee, Lakeside, La Mesa, San Miguel, Bostonia and Alpine responded to the accident with 18 engines, three trucks, and three other units.
One of the F-14A's ejector seats landed in power lines in the 1100 block of East Lexington, knocking out electricity to about 4,800 customers for an hour, San Diego Gas & Electric spokesman Fred Vaughn said.
About an hour after the crash, the black smoke turned gray as firefighters poured water on the twisted, charred remains of hangar walls, airplanes and cars. One of the jet engines lay between the buildings, and inspectors examined the area to see if the crash had spread hazardous materials at the site.
Monday's crash brought to 97 the number of F-14As that have crashed since the Navy first began flying them in 1972. An hour before the El Cajon crash, another F-14 crashed into the Atlantic and sank 40 miles east of Oregon Inlet, N.C.
That jet, stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, was also on a routine training mission when it developed unknown problems, forcing the pilot and radioman to eject over the water, said a Navy spokesman. One of the two airmen died of injuries and the other is missing, said the spokesman.
The Tomcat, a highly sophisticated front-line fighter plane, is designed to protect aircraft-carrier groups from hostile aircraft. It is capable of flying at twice the speed of sound and can track and destroy targets up to 100 miles away.
The Tomcat can carry two types of air-to-air missiles, the long-range Phoenix and heat-seeking Sidewinder, but no weapons were aboard the Miramar plane Monday, a Navy spokesman said.
Times staff writers Robert L. Frelow Jr., Joseph Menn, Armando Acuna, Pam Lopez-Johnson, Patrick McDonnell and Eric Bailey contributed to this report.