Marine fighter jet explodes after colliding with refueler in the air over California


An investigation is underway into what caused one of the Marine Corps’ newest fighters, an F-35 Lightning II, to “make contact with” the wing of a KC-130J Hercules transport plane while attempting to refuel in the air during a massive training exercise being held over the skies of Southern California and parts of Arizona.

The incident, which was first reported around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, occurred over Thermal, a town near Palm Springs, and was witnessed by people on the ground who reported a booming crash and a large fireball.

Department of Defense officials say the $100 million fighter jet was lost, but the pilot was able to eject and is being treated in a hospital. The K-130 landed in a carrot field near Thermal – the pilot had headed toward the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport. The nine service members on board suffered only minor injuries, said 1st Lt. Brett Vannier, spokesman for Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

Both planes and their personnel were taking part in a large-scale exercise that is being conducted across 1,200 miles of airspace over Southern California and parts of Arizona.

The 41-day exercise, which began last week and is hosted by the Marine Aviation Weapons Tactic Squadron out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, includes 80 aircraft.

Most of the training is being conducted over desert areas near Twentynine Palms and MCAS Yuma. But, military aircraft will also fly over coastal communities, said 1st Lt. Wesley P. Medeiros, spokesman for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Pilots and aircrew include both instructors and students working on landings, day and night flights, new weapons systems that may be aboard, simulated enemy scenarios and refueling whether on land or in the air.

In all, more than 1,500 flights are expected to be flown.

The training, with its multiple exercises, sometimes concurrently, incorporates the new direction set a year ago by Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, for a leaner and more nimble Marine Corps.

Training like the two aircraft were doing on refueling is critical to Berger’s planning. Instead of aircraft making long flights across vast regions, new tactics are being used where they can just touch and go or do more in-air refueling and therefore can hop between multiple points during a mission.

“We have bases set up along a path of the ultimate destination,” Meidros said as an example. “Refueling is done so we can continue to push forward. The ultimate goal is that our enemy is never out of reach.”

Tuesday’s crash is likely the third aviation accident involving major loss for the Marine Corps in the last 12 months.

Earlier this month, a Marine Corps Ch-53 made an emergency landing after a fire broke out and the helicopter landed in a field near Sneads Ferry, N.C. No injuries were reported and the incident remains under investigation.

On May 30, a civilian Twin Otter airplane crashed into a Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey parked on a ramp at a San Diego general aviation facility. In that case, there was extensive damage to both planes.

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