US Air Force F-15 jet crash prompts safety fears

Smoke seen from a garden on Moulton Chapel, Weston Hills Image copyright Russell Woodward
Image caption The two-seater F-15D training aircraft crashed in Weston Hills, near Spalding

The safety of military aircraft combat exercises over populated areas has been questioned after a US jet crashed near houses and a school in Lincolnshire.

The pilot ejected from the F-15D before it crashed in a field in Weston Hills at 15:28 BST on Wednesday.

A witness said the aircraft, which came from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, flew unmanned for "a good mile".

The US Air Force said the accident would be investigated. One MP vowed he would "keep a careful watch".

Threw helmet 'in disgust'

Brian Jex, who works at a garage near the crash site, went to help the pilot when he landed.

"He stood up, threw his helmet on the floor, in disgust, I think," said Mr Jex.

"I asked him if he was all right. He said yes, and he used my phone to phone his base, I presume.

"We gathered his parachute up and walked him back to the road.

"The police were there by then so we just left it to them."

Image caption The parachute from the plane's ejection seat tangled in a telegraph wire

The fighter jet crashed during a combat training exercise involving two aircraft.

Janet Prescott said the aircraft were "dogfighting" over her house in Weston Hills for half an hour before the crash.

She saw the F-15D come down and said it was "pure luck rather than judgement" that it did not hit houses and the school.

"From what I saw that was not a controlled crash," she said.

"That plane was completely out of control and wasn't manned for the last mile it was flying.

"When it lands so close to a school and so close to houses, that, for me, is a major concern.

"It could have taken any number of houses out. Weston Hills yesterday could have been another Lockerbie."

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Media captionBBC Look East filmed the crashed F-15D during a training flight in 2010

Ms Prescott said aircraft practised dogfighting over the area on a regular basis.

"I think there needs to be a very serious review of what's going on in this area and the level of activity that's happening," she said.

"The activity over the village and area has increased over the last few weeks, where we are getting jets on a daily basis.

"If they continue to dogfight over the village, who says it won't happen again? It's an accident waiting to happen."

Image copyright Andrew Woodger
Image caption The aircraft crashed near houses and a school

Col Robert Novotny, base commander at RAF Lakenheath, said any lessons to be taken from the F-15D crash would be published in due course.

"The aircraft is safe," he said.

"I've flown that aircraft in particular for about 20 years of my life. We have phenomenal maintenance personnel, we have very well trained pilots.

"When we find out all the facts we release those to the public through the Accident Investigation Board.

"We'll make all of our lessons learned available to the public at the right time."

Image caption Witnesses said smoke blew into Weston Hills Primary School, which was evacuated

Bernard White, who was working at home in Weston Hills when the F-15D crashed, said fighters often come "screaming" over his house but he does not take much notice.

"There must have been a one in a million chance of this crash happening so it doesn't really worry me," said Mr White.

"I was looking at the site this morning and thinking if the pilot had tried landing the plane where he did he couldn't have picked a better spot because it missed everything.

"But he didn't put it there, it was just chance."

Four US aircrew died when a helicopter from RAF Lakenheath crashed in Norfolk while on a training mission in January.

In 2011, a councillor in nearby Deeping St James called for an investigation after two US F-15 jets, also from RAF Lakenheath, were seen apparently almost colliding while dogfighting over the village.

Image caption The aircraft was based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk

Sean Maffett, a former RAF navigator and aviation expert, believes this type of combat training is often done over the sea, but could have been done over land because of the weather.

An aviation enthusiast claims to have heard radio transmissions from the F-15D before it crashed.

Mr Maffett, who read what the pilot apparently said on an internet forum, said: "As he was coming down he [the pilot] was calling out every thousand feet, and when he got down to 2,000ft he decided there was nothing more he could do, and he ejected from the aircraft.

"I'm not able to confirm the truth of what was said, but I have no reason to disbelieve it."

John Hayes, MP for South Holland and the Deepings, said he was concerned about the safety of his constituents.

"I, of course, will keep a careful watch on this," he said.

"In these kind of circumstances there's always an investigation to find out what occurred and why, and to see if any lessons can be learned from that."

Image copyright Richard Godbold
Image caption The jet was photographed earlier in the day at RAF Lakenheath
Image copyright Bernard White
Image caption The F-15 crashed in a field off Broad Gate in Weston Hills

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