The Navy fighter jet that crashed into a Virginia apartment last week belongs to one of the most frequent-visiting squadrons to Boca Chica Key, and is due back here later this month, but local Navy officials say a similar crash in a populated Florida Keys area is unlikely.
The two pilots in the F/A-18D Hornet that ejected shortly after takeoff from Naval Air Station Oceana were with Strike Fighter Squadron 106, also known as the "Gladiators," which does all its air-to-air combat training at Naval Air Station Key West, said base spokeswoman Trice Denny.
No one was killed in the crash, but the April 6 wreck was the latest of 16 major incidents involving 18 of the Navy's aging Hornets since fiscal year 2007 and came a few months after the Navy said that keeping the planes airworthy is becoming more difficult, according to a military.com news article investigating Hornet crashes.
Navy pilots training at Boca Chica Field are required to take extra safety steps such as keeping over water whenever possible and avoiding populated areas, said base Commanding Officer Capt. Patrick Lefere. He was cautious not to say that it's not impossible.
"It's certainly possible that a jet could crash here, but we make a concerted effort to avoid flying over communities as part of our noise abatement program at the air station," Lefere said. "You just can't predict where or when any aircraft, not just military aircraft, could crash."
In the two most recent major incidents at the base, both in February 2006, both pilots ejected safely into the sea -- with no major injuries. The last incident before 2006 occurred more than a decade before, in 1994, when an F-16's landing gear malfunctioned as the pilot came in to land at Boca Chica Field. The pilot ejected onto the runway, but the powered-up jet continued on before crashing on base.
The last fatal incident occurred in 1991 after a midair collision over water. Both pilots were killed. Before that, an aircraft crashed into shallow water, killing one and severely injuring two.
"The best thing we can do, and are doing, is to work aggressively with the county to limit growth in areas around the air station that have a higher potential for an aircraft accident to occur," Lefere said. "We have established accident potential zones (APZs) around the air station. Those zones follow the arrival, departure and pattern tracks of the jets that fly here and represent areas where a mishap is most likely to occur, if one occurs. They don't predict where a crash will occur, they just reflect where one is most likely to occur."
In the late 1970s, the military introduced Air Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ) maps to political leaders and residents in communities near military airports, showing the location of danger zones. For example, Tamarac Park is a Geiger Key neighborhood that is sometimes in the flight path of the F/A-18 Hornets, depending on which runway they are using for takeoff, as that relates to wind direction.
The maps are a point of controversy in many communities, and the Keys are not unique in that regard as developers, Monroe County leaders and the Navy often are at loggerheads over how the maps should be used and interpreted and what's fair for all parties.
The Navy typically opposes any development that encroaches on the airfield. Since introducing AICUZ maps, the Navy has changed the maps twice, most recently in 2004, which drew opposition from residents who said their homes were not in the noise and crash zones when they bought them years ago, but are now.
Among those to voice concerns is Monroe County Commissioner Kim Wigington who represents Stock Island and points out that there was development already near the base before the AICUZ studies.
"Many people were living in the area in the 1940s and 1950s, well before the newer planes were being used," Wigington said, adding that crashes do happen.
"As it was so aptly put to me once, it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when," Wigington said.
The Navy updated the maps in 2004 to reflect newer flight patterns by newer aircraft that changed since the '70s. Most recently, the Navy voiced opposition to a proposed hotel development at Stock Island's Safe Harbor.
"We use the APZs with local government for land use planning purposes, and ideally we would want the local government to limit development in these areas," Lefere said. "Since that's not always the case, the Navy does its best to keep people informed and aware of not just noise, but the potential for an aircraft crash."
The politics of crash data and noise often put pilots in uncomfortable position more suited for politicians, but it is something they are aware of during every flight. The Virginia crash solidified those thoughts for many, said Cmdr. Joe "Monty" McMonigle, commander of the Composite Fighter Squadron 111 (VFC-111), also known as the Sun Downers, the only flight unit based in Key West year-round.
"For the younger guys, a crash like this brings them back to earth," McMonigle said, noting in awe that no one was killed. "The junior guys step back and go, 'Maybe I'm not Superman.' For more senior guys, it reminds you of your friends that have died."
The Sun Downers fly the smaller and quieter F-5 and their students fly the F/A-18 Hornet. The sheer volume of water surrounding Boca Chica Key makes a crash into populated areas unlikely, McMonigle said.
In emergencies, pilots also like to stay in the cockpit as long as they can because ejecting is a violent, often bone-breaking, last-minute resort used only when death is imminent, McMonigle said. That typically means the pilot has enough time to point the jet over water and not a populated area, he said.
"The last thing a pilot wants to do is take a human life at home," McMonigle said. "These are guys that signed up to protect and serve this country. A Navy pilot will do everything in his power to make sure people and the ground are safe."
Oceana pilots were back in the sky three days after the crash. Lefere, himself an F/A Hornet pilot, also called the crash a harsh reminder of the safety procedures.
"Mishaps like this one are obviously very scary and often tragic," he said, "so getting initial word of them will always make me anxious."