Two pilots eject from MiG-23 at Thunder over Michigan airshow

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Two pilots ejected from a MiG-23 fighter jet in mid-air amid the finale of the Thunder over Michigan airshow demonstration at Willow Run Airport on Sunday afternoon.

The pilots ejected over and were rescued from Belleville Lake. The jet crashed near the Waverly on the Lake Apartments in Belleville at 4:15 p.m., authorities said.

“The pilot and backseater successfully ejected from the aircraft before the crash,” Wayne County Airport Authority stated. “While it did not appear they sustained any significant injuries, first responders transported the pair to a nearby hospital as a precaution.”

The pilots were taken to St. Josephs Hospital. The aircraft struck unoccupied vehicles in the apartment complex’s parking lot and no one at the apartment complex, nor the air show was injured, the airport authority stated.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate, the agencies stated. The NTSB is in charge of the investigation and will provide any updates. The cause is still unknown.

Videos showed two figures ejecting and parachutes deploying.

Witnesses at the scene, including Detroit News staff, said smoke could be seen south of the airport. The plane crashed near the lawn of The Waverly on the Lake Apartment complex in Belleville. It’s unknown if there were any injuries at the scene.

Marsha Bogardus was watching the show and captured on the scene on video.

“We’re on the water of Belleville Lake … we always come to the airshow,” Bogardus said. “We heard these huge booms. I started recording and saw the two pilots eject. It scared my kids and everyone was freaking out. It dropped like a bullet straight down near an apartment complex we live by. Not sure where it landed.”

Two pilots ejected, said Scott Buie, spokesman for the Yankee Air Museum, which hosts the annual event.

Van Buren Township police, county sheriff’s deputies and other authorities were on the scene near Interstate 94 Service Drive, where they blocked off roads and directed show fans from the scene.

Van Buren Township police and county sheriff’s office deputies were on the scene near Interstate 94 Service Drive.

“A guy was pointing and said ‘oh my God,’ which caused me to turn,” said Mark McCulloch, 49, from Saline. “I had my Nikon D-800 with a 600 mm lens that’s what I saw. I hope no one got hurt at the crash site. There was no loud noises or indication that I witnessed. Two engines blew out, you could see that but I couldn’t hear it because the guy on the PA was talking next to us.”

The first airshow started at 3 p.m., flying in circles over Van Buren Township. About 2,600 cars lined up along the service drive and at the airport to watch the show, one of the nation’s premiere airshows.

The event celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Event coordinators and authorities had no further information.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D- Ann Arbor) said she has been in touch with all the appropriate authorities regarding the crash. “It appears at this time that both pilots are safe, and there has been no human injury,” Dingell stated in a media release. “Completing comprehensive physical assessments to ensure everyone’s safety is top priority right now. People should continue to avoid the area. I am grateful that everyone appears to be safe.”

Naretee Vaughn and Prentiss Small, both from Detroit, were at Horizon Park on High Street in Belleville around 6:30 pm watching the sky and waiting to see another plane take off.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life and I’ve been to more than 15 airshows,” said Small, 32, who stuck around the event to see what would happen after the aircraft. “I went to school at Willow Run Airport to study aviation technology and my father was an aircraft mechanic.”

Vaughn said event coordinators didn’t escort attendees out but rather that attendees tuned into the AM radio station and pilot radios to see what happened.

“All they communicated was that the plane crashed in a field,” said Vaughn, also 32. “We didn’t know what would happen but everything that was in the air landed, so we assumed it was over.”

Just before the 3 p.m. show began, the President and CEO of the Yankee Air Museum, Kevin Walsh told The News the 55 modern and vintage military planes are requested from all over the world.

The theme this year was “Greatest of Thunder” including an eye-watering performance by the F-22 Raptor Eye, Walsh’s favorite.

“It’s an airplane that does things an airplane shouldn’t like loop around itself and hang in the air,” said Walsh, who has been coordinating the event for the last 25 years. “We have frontline fighters and even offer rides for $125.”

The cost to host the event is $600,000 and the event is held annually as a fundraiser for the Yankee Air Museum. Each car costs $199 to attend and it takes two years to plan each airshow, Walsh said.

“I hope we inspire people,” he said. “Everyone that flies one of these planes went to an airshow as a kid and it’s sensational. How they feel, how they fly, how they smell and how they sound, it’s all about the experience.”

The McCauley family, from Clinton Township, drove nine hours to make it in time for the afternoon airshow from Knoxville. Paul McCauley served in the army and said he was an airplane nut in the 1970s-80s. His family said they couldn’t miss the show.

“This is our sixth year and there weren’t as many planes during last year’s event during COVID but the idea of driving your car up to the runway is awesome and we’re here to see the F-35 and F-22,” said Jeanine McCauley.

Reporter Myesha Jones contributed.


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