Pilot uninjured when Thunderbird goes down after Air Force Academy performance

A Thunderbird crashed in a grassy area in southern Colorado Springs Thursday afternoon. / Ray Harless - FOX21 News
A Thunderbird crashed in a grassy area in southern Colorado Springs Thursday, June 2. / Ray Harless - FOX21 News

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — No one was injured when an Air Force Thunderbird plane went down after a performance at the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony Thursday afternoon.

The crash

The F-16 plane, jet #6, came down in a grassy area just east of Powers Boulevard near Fontaine Boulevard around 1 p.m. That’s about five nautical miles south of Peterson Air Force Base.

Jeff Bohn with the Air Force public affairs office said the pilot ejected south of the location where the plane went down. The incident happened immediately after the Thunderbirds’ post-graduation performance at the Air Force Academy, as the planes were making their final approach to the Colorado Springs airport.

Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond said the pilot, Major Alex Turner, reported a problem with the plane over the radio before ejecting.

“He had already put his gear down and that’s when the incident occurred,” Hammond said. “As far as gliding, it just flew a normal flight profile without being under control of the pilot.”

Instead of just bailing and letting the plane go down, he did everything he could to make sure people on the ground were safe.

“He made a conscious effort to direct his aircraft away from some of the local neighborhoods that are here in the area,” Hammond said.

The pilot ejected safely. Officials from the Security Fire Protection District, who were first on the scene, said he landed about a half mile from the plane.

Turner spoke with bystanders after the crash. He was evaluated by several medical professionals, who determined he had “minimal injuries.”

A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter was in the area in support of President Barack Obama, who was departing from Peterson Air Force Base. The pilot was picked up by soldiers in that helicopter and taken to Peterson.

An official from Peterson said there were no obvious issues with the plane during the Air Force Academy show.

Rebecca Barnes saw the crash from her home, and said it was almost “stunt-like.” She went out to her front yard with her kids after hearing the Thunderbirds fly over. She said she knew something was off when she saw one of the planes falling behind the others.

Barnes said that before the pilot ejected, for a moment, the plane was much louder than the others, and flying much lower.

“We heard a loud explosion,” Barnes said. “There seemed to be almost a bit of a fiery blast. And we saw the pilot get ejected out of the plane, and a red parachute opened, and he went one direction while the plane continued on its course.”

Turner was released from the hospital on good medical condition on Friday afternoon.

Traffic impacts

Powers Boulevard was closed for several hours, but has since reopened. Fontaine Boulevard is closed between Powers Boulevard to the west and Sleepy Meadows Drive to the east, and will likely be closed through Thursday night.

Officials are asking drivers to avoid the area of the crash if possible, because investigators are still on the scene.

The pilot

Major Alex Turner / Air Force Thunderbirds
Major Alex Turner / Air Force Thunderbirds

Hammond said Turner is in his first season performing with the Thunderbirds. He joined in October 2015, and has performed in 22 shows this season. He has more than 1,500 hours of flight time in the F-16. That’s more than 62 full days of flying.

He hails from Chelmsford, Maryland.

Obama meets with pilot

President Barack Obama, center, meets with Thunderbird pilot Maj. Alex Turner at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 2, 2016, before returning to Washington after the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. The pilot of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird that crashed following a flyover met with Obama shortly safely ejecting safely into a Colorado field. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP, Pool)
President Barack Obama, center, meets with Thunderbird pilot Maj. Alex Turner at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 2, 2016, before returning to Washington after the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP, Pool)

The Thunderbirds had just finished a performance at the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony. President Barack Obama, who was the commencement speaker at the ceremony, met with Turner thanked him for his service.

News of the crash broke while Obama’s motorcade was returning to Peterson for his flight back to Washington.

“The president thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the Associated Press.

What happens next

Hammond said the Air Force’s investigation into what caused the incident could take one to three months.

The Thunderbirds will “stand down” for an undetermined amount of time so investigators can gather information about what caused the crash.

A performance scheduled for this weekend at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico has been cancelled. There’s no word on when performances will resume.

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