No civilians injured in 3rd military plane crash in county since 2007
By Tony Kukulich and Mike McCombs
A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet crashed at approximately 3:15 p.m. Thursday, March 3 on Halfmoon Island while conducting a routine flight in Beaufort, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) Communications Strategy and Operations Office confirmed in an email.
The 2nd MAW said both Marines ejected safely with no injuries and were in stable condition. According to media reports, they were recovered on Coosaw Plantation, land owned by the family of former S.C. Governor and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford.
The aircraft crashed in an unpopulated area near MCAS Beaufort, according to the Marines. Halfmoon Island is located in northern Beaufort County near the communities of Lobeco, Dale and Seabrook.
Lacy Jefferson, Jr., who works for Beaufort County General Support, was at the Beaufort County Public Works facility on Shanklin Road when he saw the plane flying in the distance in the direction of MCAS Beaufort with an engine that appeared to be in flames.
“It was crazy, man,” Jefferson said. “I’m just glad that both (of the pilots) are all right.”
Dana Endorf was another witness to the accident. She had just returned to her home in Seabrook after a fishing trip in her kayak.
“My husband and I were out on our dock cleaning my kayak when the plane crashed. I heard a plane, but that’s not unusual for here. Then I heard a real loud boom. I looked over the Whale Branch River to where Halfmoon Key is, the island, and I saw two parachutes coming down. … It crashed right across the Whale Branch River from us.”
The Sheldon Fire District (SFD) was among the agencies that responded to the crash site. SFD Chief Buddy Jones said that the crash ignited a brush fire that grew to about 10 acres.
“There were areas it could’ve gone further, and there were areas it couldn’t because it was running into marsh and wetlands,” said Jones of the fire. “The plane was completely destroyed when it hit. It was on fire. The pilots were found probably half a mile, three-quarters of a mile from the crash site.”
Jones said there were approximately 25 firefighters on the scene from various agencies including the Forestry Service, Burton Fire District and the MCAS Beaufort Fire and Emergency Services. Firefighters exercised caution due to the potential hazards associated with a downed military aircraft.
“We kept our distance and foamed the plane,” said Jones. “When the crash rescue trucks got there they really foamed it. That’s what they’re designed to do. They’re made for aircraft firefighting. That’s pretty standard procedure. The Marine Corps crash crew from the air station does a fantastic job.”
According to Kristin Williams, Executive Director of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, the jet went down on land protected from development. The crash, she said, was a prime example of why her agency and others work to conserve land surrounding military bases.
“It crashed on protected land,” Williams said. “It is Coosaw Plantation, which is protected with a conservation easement that we hold. It crashed on privately protected land, which is why we protect land against encroachment around our military installations. (This crash) is an example of why that is so important. Thank God everyone is ok, but imagine if that was a neighborhood. It really shows the importance of land protection.”
The Boeing-made aircraft was assigned to Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 (VMFA(AW)-533), Marine Aircraft Group 31, 2nd MAW. A safety investigation will be conducted to determine the cause of the crash.
MCAS Beaufort, which initially advised Thursday afternoon that for public safety, people should avoid the area, is asking for assistance from the local community. The air station is asking anyone who may have captured photographs or video of the aircraft before the crash, if they could please send their name and contact information to email@example.com.
According to the U.S. Navy’s website, navy.mil, the F/A-18D Hornet, which entered into service in 1983, “remains the workhorse of Marine Corps tactical aviation and supports operational deployments around the globe. It will serve as the Marine Corps’ primary bridging platform to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter until its planned sundown in 2030.”
The crash is the third near MCAS Beaufort in recent years.
On Sept. 28, 2018, a pilot ejected safely from a Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II with VMFAT501 before it crashed on uninhabited Little Barnwell Island.
The crash was attributed to a defective fuel tube. The Marines’ fleet of F-35s was grounded until it could be inspected and the defective parts eliminated.
On April 21, 2007, during the final minutes of the Blue Angels’ performance at the MCAS Beaufort Air Show, Blue Angel No. 6 broke formation and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet crashed 3 miles from the center of the Air Show.
Lt. Commander Kevin “Kojak” Davis was killed in the crash, which injured eight civilians on the ground and did extensive damage to private property. The crash was later attributed to G-force-induced lack of consciousness.
Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.