The D.C. Air National Guard is grounding its F-16 fighter jets while they conduct an investigation into a collision of two jets off the Virginia coast, News4's Northern Virginia Bureau reporter David Culver reported.
The jets collided midair, forcing one of the pilots to eject into the ocean and be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter a few hours later, officials said Friday. The F-16 grounding is only in effect for the D.C. Air National Guard.
The other pilot involved in the collision was able to fly back to Joint Base Andrews, Md. Both jets were from the 113th Wing D.C. Air National Guard and were on a routine training mission Thursday night when the collision happened about 35 miles southeast of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Capt. Michael Odle, chief of public affairs for the air wing, said the jets collided when their wings clipped each other. Odle didn't specify the exact maneuvers the pilots were going through, but he noted that the air wing's pilots are frequently called upon to intercept aircraft that enter restricted airspace or lose communications in the Washington area. Those intercepts typically require aircraft to fly in close proximity.
"The biggest takeaway here is that we lost metal, but we didn't lose an airman's life and that's the most important thing we want to focus on here," Capt. Odle said.
The Air National Guard has not released the names of the pilots involved, but Odle said both are experienced pilots. One is a captain and the other is a lieutenant colonel.
The Coast Guard said the pilot of the jet who was rescued at sea early Friday is in good condition. Odle said the other pilot has already been evaluated by medical staff and released.
"We are extremely fortunate to have lost only metal, and not the life of one of our Airmen,'' Brig. Gen. Marc Sasseville, 113th Wing commander, said in a statement. "I wish a speedy recover to our injured pilot.''
The Coast Guard said it was alerted to the pilot's ditching by a distress signal from his ejection seat at about 10:30 p.m.
Three other planes were also taking in part in the training, and one remained in the area to help guide Coast Guard rescuers to the downed pilot, Odle said. The downed pilot was wearing a life vest and had a handheld radio with him in his life raft, according to the Coast Guard.
"One of the F-16s that stayed on scene was in communication with the downed pilot and helped relay information to our helicopter,'' said Petty Officer David Weydert, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 5th District in Portsmouth, Va..
The pilot was pulled from the water by a rescue crew aboard an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that was based at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C. It was faster to send the helicopter instead of a small boat from Chincoteague, Weydert said.
"When we got on scene, shined a light on him and you could see him in the raft. He was talking on the radio. He was alert," Coast Guard rescue swimmer Bret Fogle said.
At the time of the rescue, seas in the area were about 4 feet high, and storms were visible in the distance.
Weydert said the downed pilot was able to light a rescue flare to become more visible to the search and rescue crew.
"The military has some of the best and most highly-trained people in the world, which reduced the potential magnitude of this incident,'' Sasseville said.
The Air National Guard said the cause of the collision is under investigation.