GLENDALE, AZ - The Air Force says an F-16 fighter jet that went down near Luke Air Force Base in suburban Phoenix most likely hit a bird before it crashed, an Air Force spokeswoman said Thursday.
Two pilots who were practicing landings and takeoffs at the base Wednesday evening ejected safely and the fighter crashed in a farm field near the base.
Base spokeswoman Lt. Candice Dillitte said Thursday that there's nothing to indicate a fleet-wide problem with the jets, but the Air Force will investigate the cause. The Air Force has more than 1,000 of the single-engine fighters.
The base, 15 miles west of Phoenix in Glendale, Ariz., trains pilots and has more than 130 F-16s. An instructor and a student were flying the jet that crashed.
Witnesses said they heard the jet's engine sputtering and popping just before the plane went down. Video from a TV helicopter showed plumes of smoke rising from the crash scene.
Tim Roberts lives near the base and says it often sounds like they are landing in his living room.
But Wednesday night was different. It was the first time he heard a 'boom.'
He said he grabbed his camera because he didn't know what it was and that's when he saw a mushroom cloud about a mile away.
"They were already down and there was a crew out that had evacuated them within minutes after they hit the ground," Roberts said.
At a press briefing late Wednesday, 56th Operations Group commander Col. John Hanna said the pilots from the 309th Fighter Squadron needed to get out fast.
"It was severe enough to where the pilots on board the aircraft realized that they were not going to be able to execute a safe landing," Hanna said.
Luke officials say it's no coincidence the base is surrounded by farmland. It's left that way on purpose, for exactly this type of situation.
"It's kind of scary to know that things like that could happen but I guess it's just a matter of numbers," Roberts said. "It's bound to happen sooner or later."
Bird strikes can severely damage jet engines. US Airways Flight 1549 lost both engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in January 2009 but landed safely in the Hudson River.
An inspector general's audit last year criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for not doing enough to stop bird strikes. The report cited a five-fold increase in bird strikes over the last two decades, from 1,770 reported in 1990 to 9,840 reported in 2011, due in part to growing bird populations. The strikes have led to at least 24 deaths and 235 injuries in the United States since 1988.
The report said the FAA's oversight and enforcement efforts were insufficient.