State News

Pilot dies after Harrier jet crashes near Cherry Point

Posted December 29, 2008 1:47 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:11 p.m. EDT

— A Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jet crashed Monday afternoon near the Marine Corps' Cherry Point air station in eastern North Carolina, killing the pilot.

Officials said the crash of the single-seat fighter occurred at approximately 12:30 p.m. while it was returning from a routine training flight.

The pilot's name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

Cherry Point spokesman Michael Barton said in a news release that the plane crashed in woods near one of the base's two runways near N.C. Highway 101, not far from a terminal for a state Department of Transportation ferry that crosses the Neuse River.

The cause of the crash is under investigation, but investigators said they do not believe weather was a factor.

Witnesses reported hearing a "whimpering" noise from the aircraft before seeing a large plume of smoke.

"It looks as if he (the pilot) tried to glide it in safely away from the residential area,” Cherry Point spokeswoman Gunnery Sgt. Reina Barnett said.

Barnett said it appeared the pilot stayed with the aircraft instead of ejecting, and that he may have thought he could save the plane.

There were some hunters out and "the next thing they saw was smoke and flames,” Barnett said.

Roger Colaw and his grandson often hunt in the woods around the crash site. The former Marine said he heard trouble coming for the aircraft.

"It sounded like it was having engine trouble,” Colaw said.

Colaw said he did not see the plane go down, but rushed toward it when he heard the crash.

"A big puff of white smoke went up in the air and it sent stuff flying everywhere,” Colaw said.

Colaw called for survivors, but there was no response.

"It was heartbreaking, I will tell you,” he said.

Investigators said they hope another pilot will be able to provide information about why the aircraft crashed. Military aircraft travel in pairs and another pilot was flying ahead of the Harrier when it went down.

Cherry Point is home to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the jet was part of a training squadron, where pilots come to hone their skills with the Harrier.

Monday's crash comes in the same month that another Marine jet crashed in a San Diego neighborhood near its base, killing four people on the ground.

Another Harrier crashed in February near the base in Carteret County, but the pilot was not injured. (View a list of recent crashes involving Cherry Point Harriers.)

A two-seat training model crashed in May in Arizona, but the pilots ejected safely.

The Marine Corps began acquiring the British-designed Harriers in 1971 and has implemented various revisions.

The aircraft, which can direct their jet exhaust downward to take off and land vertically or with a very short runway, were intended to provide air support to ground troops in areas where conventional runways were not available.

The Harrier was considered accident prone in its original configuration, but has overcome that reputation in current models.