The body of a US Navy fighter jet has been located after his plane crashed in Death Valley, injuring seven people at a lookout that is often packed with people watching military pilots speed through a chasm dubbed Star Wars Canyon.
The pilot’s fate was uncertain in the immediate aftermath of the crash, but a day later US Navy officials said the aviator’s remains had been located.
The crash of the F/A-18E Super Hornet sent dark smoke billowing in the air, said Aaron Cassell, who was working at his family’s Panamint Springs Resort about 16 kilometres away.
“I just saw a black mushroom cloud go up,” he told the Associated Press. “Typically you don’t see a mushroom cloud in the desert.”
Mr Cassell was the first to alert emergency services to the crash.
The fighter jet was taking part in a low-altitude training mission at the time, according to Lieutenant Commander Lydia Bock, a spokeswoman for the plane’s home base, US Naval Air Station Lemoore, north of Los Angeles.
Wednesday’s crash was the first of a military plane since the 1990s in Death Valley, which ranks as the hottest, driest and lowest-elevation national park in the United States.
The aircraft from VFA-151 was on a routine training flight when the mishap occurred. Search and rescue units from @NAWS_CL and NAS Lemoore are on scene. The cause of the mishap is under investigation.
— flynavy (@flynavy) July 31, 2019
Death Valley National Park spokesman Patrick Taylor said ambulances were sent to the crash site near Father Crowley Overlook, but it wasn’t clear if anyone was transported for further medical treatment.
He said initial reports were that seven park visitors had minor injuries.
The lookout point, about 257 kilometres north of Los Angeles, is popular with photographers and aviation buffs who gawk at jets flying training missions in the steep, narrow canyon.
US and foreign militaries train pilots and test jets in the gorge, officially called Rainbow Canyon, near the park’s western entrance.
AP says the chasm’s nickname – Star Wars Canyon – is due to the mineral-rich soil and red, gray and pink walls that resemble the home planet of Star Wars character Luke Skywalker.
Training flights are almost a daily feature in the area. Jets scream below the rim of the canyon and pass so close viewers can see the pilots’ facial expressions.
The jet was from strike fighter squadron VFA-151 stationed at Lemoore. The squadron is part of an air group attached to the aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis.
The Super Hornet is a twin-engine warplane designed to fly from either aircraft carriers or ground bases on both air-superiority and ground-attack missions.