An F18 Hornet fighter jet, which took off from U.S. military base RAF Lakenheath, crashed in the farmlands of southeast England Wednesday, and the pilot has been credited by locals for saving nearby houses from destruction.
The F18 crashed around 10:30 a.m. local time after leaving Lakenheath, located 70 miles from London, NBC News reported. The site was in Cambridgeshire on farmland close to the border with Suffolk; BBC News specified that the jet came down in the Fens, or a marshy area.
A member of the public reported that the F18 had crashed, and early reports indicate that the jet had problems refueling shortly after it took off, but this hasn’t been confirmed by the military, Haverill Echo reported.
Residents nearby reported hearing a bang, followed by lots of smoke and a huge fireball. Farmer Patrick Turner, 72, who lives close to where the F18 crashed, described the scene.
“There was a hell of a bang when it hit the ground. It shook all of the houses. It was so loud you could not hear yourself speak.”
Cambridge News also reported that Turner saw the pilot eject and watched his descent by parachute, which he saw land near a river close by.
“[He] bailed out and I saw the parachute coming down. The flames were huge,” he added. “There was no way anyone was getting out of that alive. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you expect on your doorstep. It was like something from a film.”
The pilot was confirmed dead but hasn’t been named. The aircraft can only accommodate one crew member, so it’s believed he was the only fatality.
Though the F18 took off from Lakenheath, it was not connected to the base. It belonged to the Marine Attack Fighter Squadron 232, stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego. The F18 and three others arrived at the base over the weekend and had recently been on bombing missions in Syria.
Nicknamed the Red Devils, the aircraft sport red patches on their tails and are part of the Marine’s oldest squadrons, founded in 1925. Its stay at Lakenheath was temporary, and they were headed back to the States. Four, including the one that crashed, took off from Lakenheath this morning.
Accidents near Lakenheath are rare. In 2014, an American F-15 crashed in farmland during training and narrowly missed a school; no one was hurt. A local resident named John Smith, who lives near Lakenheath and another base, Mildenhall, said activity at the former had increased in recent weeks. He said the aircraft been flying at night, which is unusual.
The region where this F18 crashed is surrounded by fields and few houses, and a woman named Karen Miles-Holdaway, 48, said the pilot saved the people living in these homes, based on her view of the dramatic crash from her back garden.
“I was in my garden when I saw the plane going over. It was much lower than they usually fly at. I have so much praise for the pilot as I have heard he didn’t make it. He took the plane away from the houses which was brilliant. We are just very grateful to him.”
The accident is under investigation. Local farmers still tending to their fields as fire department and rescue personnel, whose services were reportedly not needed, look on. Few details about the cause were immediately available, and the deceased pilot hasn’t been named.
The F18, a $57 million jet, is about 60 feet long and can carry both missiles and bombs. It’s not currently known whether the one that went down Wednesday had been armed.
[Photo Courtesy Handout/Getty Images]