Local News

Military Plane Crashes At RDU, Catches On Fire

Posted March 26, 2004

— A military plane crashed on a runway east of Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Friday, catching on fire and sending a huge plume of thick, black smoke into the air visible from miles away.

The jet was identified as an F-18 C Strike Fighter. It was based in Oceana, Va., and had stopped to refuel during a routine training mission.

The pilot, identified as Lieutenant Junior Grade Wesley Baumgartner, of Yorktown, Va., ejected. He was uninjured and taken to WakeMed for examination.

The jet was assigned to the Strike Fighter Squadron 15 -- also known as VFA-15, or the Valions.

Airport spokesperson Teresa Damiano said Baumgartner described his jet swerving and bursting into flames as he taxied down a runway toward takeoff around 3:10 p.m.

The jet never left the ground. Damiano said Baumgartner ejected after the jet had traveled about 1,700 feet down the 7,500-foot runway.

Baumgartner was the only person on board the one-seat aircraft. No one on the ground was injured.

Witness Julius Jacobs, 12, was waiting for a commercial flight to Nashville, Tenn., to celebrate his birthday at the time of the crash. Instead, he saw an event he may never forget.

"All of a sudden, the airplane started to move," Jacobs said, "and something came out of it, and a parachute was on the tail end of it. I was wondering what it was, and after a little while, I discovered it was a man who had ejected himself out of the plane."

Damiano said Baumgartner never lost consciousness during his ejection or the aftermath. She said the burning jet continued rolling for about another 550 feet toward Terminal A before coming to a stop about 250 feet from the terminal.

Emergency personnel worked for nearly an hour to put out the fire, dousing it with a foam substance.

Damiano said no buildings were hit. But two of the airport's three terminals were shut down, and traffic into the airport was reduced from five lanes to one.

The terminals since have reopened. But some flights were canceled and others delayed.

Damiano advised travelers to call ahead about possible schedule changes.

Witness Brad Williams, who was doing construction work in an area of Terminal A, said it appeared that turbulence from another F-18 that took off just seconds earlier may have knocked the jet off the runway. The two jets were traveling together.

There were reports of the second jet "cartwheeling" down the runway, with skid marks and debris showing the path it took. The pilot ejected before the plane came to rest right-side up, and he was seen walking around while waiting for an ambulance to pick him up.

"Airspace was closed for a small period of time," Damiano said. "But the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) is allowing some takeoffs and departures on a limited basis. Do not come to RDU if you have no reason to."

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