An F-16 fighter jet from the Air Force Thunderbirds flying team crashed south of Colorado Springs minutes after wrapping up an air show over the Air Force Academy graduation Thursday.
The pilot of jet No. 6 safely ejected about 1:15 p.m., the Air Force said. According to the Thunderbirds website, the pilot of jet No. 6 was Maj. Alex Turner, who joined the Thunderbirds in 2015.
The jet crashed in a field across from First Baptist Church of Peaceful Valley in the Security/Widefield area, at 7925 Fontaine Blvd. Authorities say the plane likely won't be removed from the crash site until Friday, as the investigation is ongoing.
As of Thursday night, all roads in the area had reopened except for a stretch of Fontaine Boulevard between Powers Boulevard and Marksheffel Road, the El Paso County's Sheriff's Office said.
There jet poses no hazard to the community, said Jeff Bohn, a Peterson Air Force Base spokesman. In emergency situations, the jets are equipped to use hydrazine as a fuel source. The fuel is known to be a volatile substance and Bohn said it was unclear whether it was used during the crash.
"It's an unfriendly chemical and we want to make sure that it's confined and treated properly," he said.
Air Force Academy sources said Turner's plane suffered apparent engine failure before the crash. The official cause of the crash has not been released. Turner was on the final approach to a runway at the Colorado Springs Airport when Peterson Air Force Base received reports of an aircraft down, Bohn said.
Turner parachuted about a half-mile from the aircraft, said Pete Smith of the Security Fire Protection District, which was the first agency to arrive at the scene. "He seemed pretty calm to me. I'd have been more upset than he was."
An Army helicopter supporting a Secret Service mission took Turner to Peterson for medical observation, a White House news release said. He was later taken to Memorial Hospital and released, said Col. Doug Schiess, installation commander for the Peterson 21st Space Wing.
Turner "had minimal injuries, nothing great," Schiess said.
Alexander Rodriguez told The Gazette he heard two loud bangs and looked up to see the Thunderbird slowly gliding roughly 40 to 50 feet above the ground.
"I immediately knew that it was going to crash," Rodriguez said, noting that the plane landed in a field and slid 100 to 150 feet. Rodriguez said he ran to the plane, passing debris and plane parts littering the field. He checked the cockpit and found it empty.
"I was relieved the pilot was OK," he said. His brother and father found the pilot without any apparent serious injuries, he said.
The jet appeared to stop largely intact - only the front end of it appeared damaged and a rear wing was broken, Rodriguez said.
Thunderbirds Cmdr. Christopher Hammond said the aircraft "skidded a little" before landing, according to Gazette news partner KKTV. Hammond added that the pilot made a "conscious effort" to avoid buildings and neighborhoods. Details about what maneuvers Turner made before the crash were not available.
"After (Turner) ejected from the aircraft, we did confirm from one of our aircrafts that we kept airborne that he was OK on the ground, in terms of being able to walk around on his own accord," Hammond said. "He also met with some bystanders, and then as far as when he arrived at Peterson Air Force Base, I was able to see him in person and ... I had no cause for concern."
A crash with the plane intact, no fire and a safe pilot is about as good an outcome as possible for the situation, Bohn said. "It's a testament to the exceptional pilotism of our Air Force Thunderbird pilot," he added.
After the crash, Turner met with the President Barack Obama before the president flew out of Peterson about 2:10 p.m. Obama, in Colorado Springs to give the commencement speech at the academy, stopped his motorcade and shook hands with Turner moments before boarding Air Force One.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president "thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured." The president also thanked the first responders who "acted quickly to tend to the pilot."
Turner has logged more than 1,200 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, with more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq. Before joining the Thunderbirds, Turner, from Chelmsford, Mass., served as an F-16 instructor pilot at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Turner is a solo pilot for the team, showing off the F-16's performance while flashing past the group's four-plane diamond formation.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who watched the Thunderbirds show from Falcon Stadium, took to Twitter to express gratitude for Turner's safety.
"My thoughts are with the pilot, their family and friends and all @AFThunderbirds," James wrote. "Glad to hear pilot is safe."
The Thunderbirds crash wasn't Thursday's only plane crash. A U.S. Navy Blue Angels jet crashed about 3 p.m. in Smyrna, Tenn., and killed the pilot, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss of Durango.
The last Thunderbirds crash happened Aug. 20, 2005, over Lake Michigan during the Chicago Air & Water Show. During the mid-air incident, the missile tip on the right wing of one aircraft made contact with the left stabilizer of an adjacent aircraft, snapping off a 4-foot section of the missile rail, which fell into Lake Michigan. No injuries were reported.
For generations, the Thunderbirds have flown over the academy's graduation without incident. The planes routinely are pressed to their limits, with maneuvers that can subject the aircraft to more than nine times the force of gravity.
Rodriguez said he wasn't surprised the aircraft appeared to hit the ground with minimal force after landing in the field. He praised the pilot.
"They're trained for events like this, what to do," Rodriguez said, "That's only the best pilots in the Air Force who fly the Thunderbirds."
The Gazette's Kaitlin Durbin, Wayne Heilman, Jakob Rodgers, Tom Roeder, Megan Schrader and Chhun Sun contributed.