A retired military pilot died when a plane went down Wednesday north of Point Mugu in a crash similar in several ways to one two years earlier.
Although it was a civilian plane, the Hawker Hunter Mk-58 was tied to Naval Base Ventura County and was used in military training, according to the base.
Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Mike Lindbery confirmed one death in the fiery crash, which was reported at 5:13 p.m. in what appeared to be a strawberry field near East Hueneme Road and the Pacific Coast Highway. Lindbery said the body was found in the debris field, which appeared to be 50 to 60 feet long.
Base spokeswoman Kimberly Gearhart said the Hawker Hunter jet operated by Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. went down on the final approach to Naval Base Ventura County Point Mugu.
A spokesman for Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. confirmed the pilot worked for the firm that’s headquartered in Newport News, Va.
“He was a seasoned military fighter pilot,” spokesman Matt Bannon said by phone.
Bannon did not release the pilot’s name, saying next of kin had yet to be notified. Bannon said no one else was on board the aircraft when it crashed.
Soon after the crash, heavy black smoke was visible, lasting until about 5:38 p.m., by which time the flames had been extinguished. Smoke continued to drift to the northeast after the fire was out as a sheriff’s helicopter hovered and traffic backed up as motorists slowed to see what was going on. However, few people could get close to the site, which was well cordoned off.
Wednesday’s crash shared a few similarities with another one that occurred nearby two years earlier.
On May 18, 2012, a Hawker Hunter Mk-58 crashed in a field off Broome Ranch Road near CSU Channel Islands, killing pilot Thomas Bennett, 57 of Camarillo. That plane was also owned by Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. and it also was returning to Point Mugu.
Despite the two crashes, Bannon on Wednesday defended the safety record of Hawker Hunters, which the company has described on its website as a transonic single-seat fighter/ground attack monoplane with swept-back wings. The company has described the jet’s turbine engine as a 15-stage axial flow Rolls-Royce Avon MK207 that develops 10,150 pounds of thrust.
Such planes are used by Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. pilots — who are mostly retired from the Navy and Air Force — as they help in military training by playing “the bad guys” during simulations, Bannon said. Their job is to stage aerial dogfights or mock attacks.
Local exercises take place over water, often using a fleet of Navy ships. After the 2012 crash, The Star reported that pilots also participate in training sessions in Nevada during simulated aerial combat with Navy pilots.
The Star reported after the 2012 crash that an Airborne Tactical team flew out of Point Mugu to support Navy training missions in the region. Bannon told The Star at the time that the company’s pilots log about 3,800 hours a year in support of the Navy, flying in the continental United States, Japan and across the West Pacific. About 1,400 of those hours are logged on the West Coast, Bannon said at the time.
The company won large Navy contracts in 2009 totaling about $43 million over five years. Enlisting a private company for the work saves the military money by reducing the wear and tear on front-line fighter jets, company officials have said.
Before the 2012 crash, the most recent fatal crash involving the base had occurred on April 20, 2002, when a Navy QF-4 Phantom II jet crashed during a landing maneuver at the Point Mugu Air Show, killing its two crew members.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Wednesday’s crash, with the NTSB serving as lead agency, FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.
Initial reports said two people might have been killed, but authorities later concluded only the pilot was killed, Lindbery said. After a parachute was found nearby, early reports also indicated the pilot had ejected. Lindbery said a parachute was found at the scene but he could not say whether the pilot was trying to eject from the aircraft when it crashed.
“This is something we are still looking at,” Lindbery said.
This story contains archived material from The Star.