SAN DIEGO — Military crews on Thursday mopped up the debris of an exploded fighter jet that struck a Southern California neighborhood, as authorities launched an investigation into the latest crash of the Cold War aircraft with a history of problems.
The Harrier AV-8B had taken off from the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma and was almost at his destination at Naval Air Facility El Centro when it went down Wednesday afternoon, going up in flames and destroying two homes and badly damaging a third. The pilot who was ejected landed in a nearby field and suffered only scrapes and bruises.
There were no injuries in the neighborhood, which is near a county airport and the El Centro training facility.
“We have air traffic every day from big military helicopters to Osprey to Blue Angels flying over us,” said resident Leonardo Olmeda, 25, who was racing remote-controlled cars in a street where children were playing when they saw the pilot eject and the jet ignite. “Everybody seems relieved and thankful that the outcome of this was not worse.”
Two of the displaced families in the newer neighborhood of Imperial – a small desert city of about 15,000 people about 90 miles east of San Diego – went to stay with friends or relatives, while the Red Cross put up one couple in a hotel Wednesday night. Officials were assessing whether any of the families would need longer-term help, such as rental assistance or other items, said Red Cross spokeswoman Courtney Pendleton.
Marine Capt. Anton Semelroth said the military was investigating to determine whether human error, a mechanical failure or some other reason caused the jet to crash. The probe could take months to complete.
It was the second crash in a month of a Harrier jet from the Yuma air base. On May 9, a pilot was able to eject safely before his jet crashed in a remote desert area near the Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix. No one was injured.
In July 2012, another AV-8B Harrier crashed in an unpopulated area 15 miles from the air base, which is among the busiest training aviation centers in the world for the Marine Corps.
The Harrier, built by McDonnell Douglas, is a single-engine attack jet that can land and takeoff vertically – hence its nickname, Jump Jet. Military officials say the aircraft is being replaced by the F-35 because it has been in use for more than 40 years and has reached the end of its life cycle.
It also has had a problematic safety record over the years.
In 1999, the planes were grounded after a series of crashes, and in 2003 the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports that found the Harrier was the most accident-prone aircraft in the military at that time.
Over the last five years, the Marine Corps has lost seven Harrier aircraft in crashes and six Hornets, officials said.
“Every time we take off, safety is our biggest concern,” Semelroth said. “I’m sure after the previous mishaps we’ve got a better process now and will take this investigation and do the same thing. We constantly try to improve the process and make it safer.”
In 2011, a federal judge ordered the U.S. government to pay $17.8 million to a family that lost four members when a Marine Corps F-18 fighter jet crashed into their San Diego home in 2008.
The Marine Corps has said the plane suffered a mechanical failure and a series of bad decisions led the pilot – a student – to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base.
A few hours after the jet crashed in Imperial on Wednesday, a Navy Hornet went into the sea off San Diego as it prepared to make a late-night landing on an aircraft carrier. The pilot was listed in stable condition after ejecting.