EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A pilot of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds jet wasn’t injured after ejecting just before the F-16 crashed outside of Colorado Springs Thursday afternoon. The crash happened just moments after the pilot flew over the Air Force Academy graduation.
The plane crashed at Fontaine Boulevard near Rolling View Drive in the Security-Widefield area south of Colorado Springs.
“I thought this is really strange that this is happening so I pulled over again took a picture of the pilot coming down and then from a distance saw the plane out in the field between Powers Boulevard and Fontaine Boulevard,” said witness Debbie Cooper.
The pilot, identified as Alex Turner, was preparing to land when something went wrong and he ejected from the plane while it was already low to the ground.
Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond said the pilot made a decision to move the jet over an open field and eject.
“He made a conscious effort to direct his aircraft away from some of the local neighborhoods that are here in the area,” said Hammond.
The jet had participated in a flyover during the graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy where President Barack Obama spoke.
Turner walked away from the crash, landing nearly a half mile away. Before boarding Air Force One, Obama stopped his motorcade as he was leaving the Air Force Academy and thanked Turner for his service. Obama also said he was thankful Turner was not seriously hurt.
Turner was taken to Peterson Air Force Base for evaluation. He was been with the Thunderbirds since October 2015 and was an experienced pilot. Officials credit his flying experience for being able to put down the plane while keeping it intact.
“In my 31 years of Air Force firefighting and public affairs, I’ve seen a number of aircraft crashes and this one is in very good shape, the aircraft is totally intact, it did not catch fire. I think it’s a testament to the exceptional pilot-ism of our Air Force Thunderbird pilot,” said one Air Force spokesman after the crash.
Investigators have given no indication about what went wrong with the aircraft. They say it could be some time before their investigation is complete.
A spokesperson for the Thunderbirds said the jet is valued at a little less than $40 million.
No one on the ground was injured.
“He was standing he went straight down and he was standing there and talking to some people I did see in one of my pictures that someone was examining his right arm,” said Cooper.
The aerial demonstration teams have crashed dozens of times in their long histories. Here is a look at some of the recent cases:
— April 2007: Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis, 32, of the Blue Angels, died when his jet went down during the final minutes of a performance at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, South Carolina The Pittsfield, Massachusetts., native was in his first year flying in formation with the team.
— August 2005: No one was hurt when two Thunderbird jets made contact while flying in formation, and a missile rail was dislodged. No one was injured in that accident at Chicago Air and Water Show, but the carbon fiber object fell into Lake Michigan, roughly 2,500 feet from where spectators had gathered to watch the show.
— September 2003: Captain Chris Stricklin safely ejected with only minor injuries when his Thunderbird jet crashed at an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho as about 85,000 spectators looked on.
— October 1999: Lt. Commander Kieron O’Connor, 35, and crewmate Lt. Kevin Colling, 32, were killed while practicing for air shows with five other Blue Angels jets at Moody Air Force Base in southern Georgia. There was no evidence of a mechanical problem on the F/A-18 Hornet. Investigators said O’Connor had a rib injury that might have given him trouble tensing his abdominal muscles to avoid blacking out during maneuvers that exert extreme gravitational forces on pilots.
— April 1999: Two Thunderbird F-16 jets bumped shortly after takeoff during a performance at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. They were able to safely land without injury.
— July 1985: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Gershon, 32, of Pensacola, Florida, died when two A-4 Skyhawk jets collided and plummeted to earth in a fiery crash witnessed by 22,000 spectators. Lt. Andy Caputi, 30, ejected from his plane and landed safely on the grounds of the Niagara Falls Air Force Base.
— January 1982: The “Diamond Crash” becomes the worst training crash in Thunderbird history. Maj. Norm Lowry, Capt. Willie Mays, Capt. Pete Peterson and Capt. Mark Melancon are killed while flying the famous diamond formation during training at Indian Springs, Nevada.