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Navy Jet Crashes Into Gillespie Field Hangars

September 13, 1988|RALPH FRAMMOLINO and JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writers

EL CAJON — 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.

Hydraulic Problems

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."

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