EL CAJON — A Navy F-14A fighter jet, abandoned by its crew over downtown El Cajon, crashed upside-down into two hangars at a civilian airfield here Monday morning, seriously injuring three people on the ground and reducing a number of small airplanes and cars to scorched rubble.
The pilots were attempting to return to their home base at Miramar Naval Air Station after developing mechanical trouble while over the Pacific on a routine training run, said Lt. David Wray, a Navy spokesman. But they experienced further trouble, turned toward Gillespie Field, a general-aviation airport about 10 miles southeast of Miramar, and were forced to eject while the plane was doing barrel rolls over El Cajon, about 10 miles east of downtown San Diego.
Witnesses said the unmanned plane--as if it had a mind of its own--rolled on its back, pointed its nose toward the sky and descended slowly into the airport, where it crashed into one hangar at 10:19 a.m. and skidded into a second hangar nearby.
'Very Loud Explosion'
"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 at another hangar at Gillespie.
Three people inside the hangars, one of which was occupied by Sky Dance Helicopter Operations, were injured, including a man who lost a leg in the accident and a helicopter mechanic who was burned on 35% of his body.
After the explosion, eyewitness Nelson Powell, a captain with the La Mesa Fire Department, said he went into the hangar "to see if there were any more people inside. When I went back in, I found the first victim's leg and brought it back to where he was."
The two crewmen of the F-14A were also hospitalized. Lt. Randy L. Furtado, 27, was in serious condition with a broken neck and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Barnett, 36, was in good condition with broken bones. But no one was killed in the accident, prompting police and military officials to agree that they were lucky that the jet wasn't carrying any munitions and didn't crash in the crowded residential and commercial areas surrounding the airfield in El Cajon.
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."
At the controls of the two-seater jet Monday was Barnett, a Miramar flight instructor with 10 years of experience flying F-14s, Wray said. His radar intercept partner on Monday was Furtado, who was being trained in the fighter jet.
"They were trying to get home, they were trying to get back to Miramar," Wray said. "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."
Control Problem Reported
The crew did not ditch the plane over the ocean because the situation was not considered serious enough at that point, said another Navy spokesman.
Along the way back to Miramar, the pilots radioed the naval air station and said they were having trouble with the jet's hydraulic system, which controls the wing flaps. Witnesses said the disabled jet began to spin out of control several miles from Gillespie. The crew bailed out about three 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," Groenendal said. "Either the plane was on automatic or it was an act of God that got the plane to Gillespie Field without the pilot flying it."
Furtado landed in Wells Park in El Cajon, next to a trailer park, where he was found lying on the ground and his parachute entangled in power lines. Paramedics tending to Furtado said the pilot had a pulse but wasn't conscious or breathing when they arrived.
Barnett landed in the middle of the 1100 block of East Main Street, where he hit hard on his heels and pitched forward on his face. Without a helmet and bloodied, he was able to tell paramedics that he lost his hydraulic system. Barnett is listed in good condition with a broken arm, broken heels, and head and face lacerations, said Wray.
Without the pilots, 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."
Napier said he saw the airplane come over California 67. "It was nose up, inverted, gear up," said Napier. "I saw it mush along."