An A-4F Skyhawk jet operated by the Navy's elite Top Gun school crashed at Miramar Naval Air Station Thursday and ignited a brush fire. The pilot safely ejected from the stricken craft, the Navy said.
The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley R. O'Connor, 37, a Top Gun flight instructor, was approaching Miramar after a routine test flight when he radioed that the single-seat jet was losing power.
The aircraft, considered one of the Navy's workhorses, crashed shortly after 10 a.m. in mountainous terrain 6 miles east of Miramar's runways. The Navy is investigating the accident, which comes 13 days after an unprecedented 48-hour, Navy-wide stand-down for a safety review.
After telling Miramar air traffic controllers that his craft was losing power, O'Connor guided the single-engine Skyhawk to a remote part of the 24,000-acre Miramar complex, 13 miles north of down town San Diego.
"He did a stupendous job of bringing it to a safe area before he felt he had no power in the aircraft," said Chief Petty Officer Bobbie Carleton, a spokeswoman for Miramar.
O'Connor, an 18-year Navy veteran who lives with his wife in San Diego, parachuted to the ground after ejecting from the plane, Carleton said. He was not injured.
The brush fire scorched more than 40 acres of chaparral-covered terrain about 5 miles east of Interstate 15 in Sycamore Canyon, Carleton said. Smoke rising from the fire was visible for miles. Firefighters brought the blaze under control after six hours, Carleton said.
Miramar is one of the Navy's four master jet stations and a hub for its sophisticated fighter planes.
Since 1972, 31 military aircraft, including the A-4 that went down Thursday, have crashed within 10 miles of Miramar, according to a report prepared by Miramar and the Naval Facilities Command in Virginia.
Only Wednesday, residents from the neighboring communities of Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta and University City had gathered to voice their opposition to suggestions that Miramar be converted to a civilian airport for San Diego.
At Miramar's Naval Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun, Skyhawks are used as adversary planes. They simulate Soviet MIGs in mock dogfights against F-14 Tomcats, the Navy's top-line fighter. Actor Tom Cruise catapulted the school to national prominence with the 1986 movie "Top Gun."
Although McDonnell Douglas stopped manufacturing the Skyhawk 10 years ago, the aircraft, which was used extensively in Vietnam by the Navy and Marine Corps, is still valued for being durable and nimble, Carleton said. The Skyhawk is valued at about $500,000, she added.
At the time of Thursday's crash, O'Connor was not engaged in combat-training maneuvers, Carleton said.
Some Navy personnel say the crash comes at a particularly unfortunate time as the Navy tries to rebound from a string of accidents that prompted the safety stand-down, which brought the entire force to a virtual halt as it reviewed its operational procedures.
The accident is the second involving Navy aircraft in two days. On Wednesday, an SH-2F Seasprite helicopter plunged into the sea off Okinawa, killing one crewman and injuring two others, including the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Alan Batterman of Chula Vista.
The co-pilot, Ens. Ralph A. Barile of Ewa Beach, Hawaii is missing and presumed lost, bringing the year's toll to 103 Navy personnel killed during training and operating procedures, the highest in the decade.
"Although we strive for zero accidents, the nature of the business is that accidents will happen," said Lt. Frank Thorp, a Navy spokesman in Washington.