CRASH UPDATE: Flight operations suspended after two aircraft crashes in four days at Eglin AFB
EGLIN AFB — Two aircraft crashes within four days have prompted the installation commander at Eglin Air Force Base to declare a “safety pause” for Thursday.
The directive from Brig. Gen. Scott Cain came Wednesday morning, following the 9:30 p.m. Tuesday crash of an F-35 Lightning II multi-role stealth jet.
The jet, assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron of the Eglin-based 33rd Fighter Wing, crashed on landing, with the pilot safely ejecting from the aircraft. The F-35 crashed on Runway 12/30 during what the 33rd Wing called “a routine night training sortie.”
Neither the pilot’s name nor any information about his flying experience were released by the 33rd Fighter Wing on Wednesday.
There were no munitions aboard the F-35, according to the 33rd Fighter Wing.
The crash did not affect Tuesday operations at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, according to Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage.
“All commercial operations were completed prior to the mishap,” Stage said.
Tuesday’s crash came just days after an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet went down Friday, 12 miles northeast of the main section of Eglin in a closed area of the installation.The F-22, part of the 325th Fighter Wing, was on a routine training mission with the 33rd Fighter Wing when it crashed at about 9:15 a.m. The pilot safely ejected from the aircraft.
Both crashes are under investigation, and on Wednesday, the 33rd Fighter Wing announced it has suspended flight operations for at least the immediate future.
“... (I)n the interest of safety, flying operations at the 33d FW are on hold at this time,” the wing’s public affairs office wrote in an email responding to questions from the Daily News. “Wing leadership will assess the best time to resume flying training after the observation of Memorial Day. This pause allows us to focus on what’s needed to safely resume flying training.”
“We breathe a sigh of relief knowing the pilots of both aircraft were cared for by our medical team and released from the hospital,” Cain said in the Wednesday message to Eglin AFB personnel in which he called for the safety pause.
“The events over the past few days remind us that the defense of our country can be a dangerous business,” Cain wrote “... It is very important to me that we now take a safety pause.”
“I’m asking commanders at all levels to conduct a virtual safety day on Thursday, May 21,” Cain said in the message posted on the Eglin AFB Facebook page. “I’ve asked my Safety Office to develop a safety briefing for use across the installation. Additional information and guidance on the safety day will be released through your chain of command.”
Cain’s message combined a concern about mission safety with the well-being of Eglin personnel in advance of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“Please take this time to focus on staying safe this weekend, how we conduct our missions safely, and on our resilience,” Cain asked Eglin personnel. “Our helping agencies are standing by to assist you and are just a phone call away.”
In other statements from Eglin AFB on Wednesday, Col. Jon Wheeler, 33rd Fighter Wing commander, addressing the Tuesday night crash, said, “Our top priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of our workforce and the local community. The base and wing took immediate and appropriate action to ensure the pilot was recovered safely and all airborne aircraft landed safely."
Wheeler also said the 33rd Fighter Wing “is now working diligently in coordination with Team Eglin to support the formal investigation and to make sure we are ready to return to normal flying operations.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Eglin AFB, addressed the crashes during a podcast released Wednesday. In part of the two minutes he devoted to the crashes, Gaetz pushed back at any suggestion that the crashes pointed to any widespread problems with the two aircraft types.
“My congressional team has reached out to Eglin Air Force Base to make sure that they have all the resources they need to conduct an investigation,” Gaetz said. “These crashes are not, at this point, indicative of some major failure of the weapons systems (a reference to the two aircraft themselves, not solely to any weapons that may have been on board),” Gaetz said.
Gaetz went on to say he is “grateful that the military will have review panels that come in and evaluate everything from the technical equipment to the different risk factors to the choices made by the pilot, and we will get full reports.”
Two reports will be filed in connection with each of the crashes. Safety investigation reports, focusing on the mechanics and conduct of the flights, will not be released to the public, but accident investigation reports, aimed at determining a cause for the crashes, are subject to public release. Accident investigations can take months or longer to complete.