AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — The pilot of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird that crashed following a flyover met with President Barack Obama shortly after ejecting safely into a Colorado field.
News of the crash broke while Obama’s motorcade was returning to Peterson Air Force Base for his flight back to Washington. The pilot ejected about 15 miles south of the base.
“The president thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The Thunderbirds had just finished their traditional performance at commencement for Air Force Academy cadets, screaming overhead just as the graduating officers tossed their white hats into the sky.
The jets then did multiple fly-bys over the academy’s football stadium, where the ceremony took place, blasting by in tight formations or looping high overhead.
There was no obvious sign of trouble with any of the jets during the performance.
“What I heard was a big boom,” said Justin Payne, who was working on wallpaper inside his house when the plane struck the ground. “I ran outside. Three or four degrees to the left and that jet would have hit our house.”
Payne said the fuselage slid about 2,000 feet before coming to rest. He said it appeared the nose was ripped from the rest of the F-16.
Authorities quickly cordoned off the area, and a hazardous materials crew was suiting up to inspect the site, said Payne, who added he was ordered to stay inside his house.
The Thunderbirds are the Air Force’s precision flying team, known for their red, white and blue painted F-16 fighter jets. The unit, based out of Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, will perform more than 40 shows in 2016, according to its website. The vaunted aerial demonstration team has been performing air demonstrations since 1947.
During a performance at the Chicago Air and Water Show in 2005, two of the jets made contact while they were flying in formation, and a missile rail was dislodged.
The group was in a diamond formation when a 4-foot-long missile rail came loose from the wing of one of their jets. The carbon fiber object fell into Lake Michigan, roughly 2,500 feet from where spectators had gathered to watch the show.
Two years earlier, a Thunderbird jet crashed at an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho as about 85,000 spectators looked on. The pilot safely ejected with only minor injuries.