VIRGINIA BEACH, VA (WWBT) - A Navy F/A-18D jet on a training flight crashed into a Virginia Beach senior-living complex around 12:30 p.m. Friday.
A student pilot was in the front seat with an expert instructor behind him in the cockpit when they experienced a "catastrophic mechanical malfunction" shortly after take-off, according to Capt. Mark Weisgerber with Fleet Forces Command.
The fighter jet crashed into the Mayfair Mews apartments near Birdneck Road, injuring seven people including the two pilots, according to Virginia Beach Fire Capt. Tim Riley. Of those, three refused treatment and four were transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. However, officials say they still have to do a secondary search through the buildings.
One of the pilots was found by volunteer rescue squad member Pat Kavanaugh, according to CNN. "He was in shock and still strapped to his seat," Kavanaugh.
Former Navy SEAL Patrick McAleenan was a block away when the plane crashed and told the Military Times the pilots ejected at the last possible second in an apparent effort to make sure that the plane would not crash into a nearby school.
The crash destroyed three buildings and severely damaged two others. A witness to the aftermath, Zack Zapatero, says people on the ground near the apartments were screaming and crying, with visible cuts and injuries.
Navy Commander Phil Rosi told WAVY.com the plane was an F/A-18 Strike Fighter with squadron 106 based at Oceana Naval Air Station.
An eyewitness to the plane crash, George Pilkington, told CNN that within 200 or 300 yards of where the plane crashed the aircraft emptied its jet fuel, with its nose up, and crashed into an building.
"One building was completely leveled, and debris was just flying into the other buildings," Pilkington said. "Right when I saw it, I knew something was wrong. The airplane was making a sound that sounded as if the engine was malfunctioning."
The area where the plane crashed is one-half mile from Virginia Beach oceanfront, with many homes and resort complexes.
"We will conduct a complete investigation into the cause of this mishap and share all information we have as soon as we are able to do so," Adm. John Harvey, commander of US Fleet Forces Command. "I deeply regret that some in our community have lost their homes, and I, like many, pray for the well-being of all."
"We are taking all possible steps at the state level to provide immediate resources and assistance to those impacted by the crash of an F-18 fighter jet in Virginia Beach," said Gov. Bob McDonnell in a written statement. "We are monitoring events carefully as they unfold and State Police resources are now on the scene. Our fervent prayer is that no one was injured or killed in this accident."
Three people are still unaccounted for, and 95% of the buildings have been searched.