The Navy has released the names and photos of the two aviators, pilot and weapons systems officer killed in Wednesdays’ F/A-18 jet fighter crash into the water one mile from Naval Air Base Key West.
Lt. Caleb King and Lt. Cmdr. Brice Johnson both perished in the Super Hornet crash. Johnson, a naval aviator and 2007 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was piloting the jet when the incident occurred while King, a 2012 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was serving as the weapons systems operator.
Both pilots were assigned to the “Blacklions” of Strike Fighter Squadron Two One Three(VFA-213), based at Naval Air Station Oceana, in Virginia, and assigned to Carrier Air Wing Eight.
Their commander, VFA-213 CO Cmdr. Kevin Robb, wrote:
“The entire Blacklion family is grieving the loss of two great Americans…phenomenal young men, exceptional aviators, and living models of what Honor, Courage and Commitment really mean.”
“As warfighters they excelled in combat, as officers they exemplified the values our Navy holds dear. I was extremely proud to have led, flown, and served with both Brice and Caleb.”
Witnesses described what appeared to be an explosion or fire in mid-air before the jet crash landed. Both aviators ejected from the craft.
The F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet, which crashed at 4:30 p.m., was from NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach on a training exercise.
The Navy shared the following update Thursday:
“Today, the squadron took the day off from training in order to grieve. The remaining squadrons in Carrier Air Wing EIGHT were briefed on the mishap and then resumed normal training operations. The F/A-18F remains in the water where it crashed and will stay there until a Mishap Investigation Board (MIB) conducts its investigation. The MIB consists of high qualified naval officers with extensive experience in all aspects of aviation. The MIB thoroughly examines previous aircraft maintenance, number of hours flown on the aircraft, physical condition of the aircrew and their activities previous to the accident.
Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southeast has a Navy On-Scene Coordinator (NOSC) who is the Commander, Navy Region Southeast representative who overseas emergency environmental impacts and makes decisions on the best way to re-mediate or mitigate environmental hazards. These hazards may be caused by circumstances such as aircraft mishaps or hurricanes. The goal is to restore the impact to the pre-existing condition and to coordinate the overall Navy response. This includes close coordination with other Navy entities, state, local and federal stakeholders and possibly outside agency contractors.
VFA-213 is scheduled to complete their training in Key West on March 21 where they will return to Naval Air Station Oceana.
The F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet crashed into the Truman Harbor waters near Naval Air Station Key West on Boca Chica Key, the Navy said.
The crash occurred at 4:30 p.m. one mile east of the runway on the island home to NAS Key West, one blanketed by mangroves and salt marshes and just a couple of miles from central Key West.
The Navy tweeted and issued statements with the first official account provided in a tweet at around 7 p.m. and later updates from the Navy at 9 and 10 p.m.
Witness Barbie Wilson who lives in Key West said she saw “fire and then it just dropped” from the sky indicating there may have been some type of explosion mid-air. Wilson told the Florida Keys News she saw the jet “turn sideways and then burst into flames.”
“In the air, I saw fire.”
King and Johnson were ejected from the aircraft and rescue crews were able to recover the two and transport them to the Lower Keys Medical Center, but tragically, at around 10 p.m. Wednesday night, U.S. Naval Air Forces tweeted that both had died.
Naval Air Station Key West is a training base for air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all military services. Key West is less than 18 feet above sea level and the region provides singular views of the sky and horizon. The Navy described the base as having “perfect flying weather year round and unparalleled aerial ranges that offer aircrew training within minutes after takeoff.”
The Navy said NAS Key West is equipped with a sophisticated Tactical Combat Training System (TCTS), similar to the one depicted in the popular movie “Top Gun,” which tracks and records aerial maneuvers. In addition, NAS Key West is the host facility for numerous tenant activities, including Joint Interagency Task Force South, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Training School to name a few.
“The best Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen in the world are to be found at NAS Key West and its tenant commands. Each of them work diligently daily to ensure that we are responsible stewards of our human, fiscal, material and environmental resources.”
The Associated Press reported the Pentagon agreed that “budget shortfalls have eroded military capabilities, including training and flight hours, but stopped short of blaming those cutbacks for the crash of a U.S. Navy fighter jet that killed both crew members.”
And according to the AP, there have been 25 serious mishaps involving F/A-18 Super Hornets since fiscal year 2008. They resulted in four deaths – including the two Wednesday – and the loss of 11 aircraft. The other two fatalities were in 2011.
All 25 were considered “Class A,” which means a crew member died or the plane suffered at least $2 million in damage. There were five incidents last year, the most of any year in the past decade, and all remain under investigation. One accident occurred in 2016.
A spokesperson for the Naval Safety Center, the AP said, couldn’t explain why the increase in accidents in 2017.