2 Air National Guard pilots home after midair collision

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MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. (AP) — Two F-16 fighter pilots who survived a midair collision in Georgia are home with their families, the commander of the South Carolina National Guard said Wednesday.

"The pilots are in good shape," Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston Jr. told reporters at a news conference on the tarmac of the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base.

Pieces of wreckage from both jets were found in remote, wooded areas about 2 miles apart from each other, Guard officials said. The two aircraft collided over a bombing range in Jefferson County, Georgia, about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Neither of the aircraft was carrying any bombs or explosives, Livingston said, but he asked local residents not to touch any parts they might find because fuel or other materials form the high-tech aircraft could be dangerous to handle.

The jets do not have beacons that would help locate them. They do have technical recorders that will give authorities information about what caused them to go down at the Bulldog Military Operations Area. The National Guard and the U.S. Air Force are dispatching teams to investigate the collision.

Base commander Col. Nicholas Gentile, who returned from flying over the 15-square-mile area in southeastern Georgia where the crash occurred, described it as a mix of farmland, dense woods, and swamp that makes the search difficult.

Livingston said it is the first similar crash of any South Carolina Guard unit in 30 years.

He would not release the pilot's names but said both are lieutenant colonels and are senior instructors in the unit who have flown in combat.

"They are very seasoned," Livingston said.

Livingston said the unit is preparing for a summertime deployment to the Pacific and flying might resume this weekend. The unit has 28 of the aircraft.

Gentile said the pilots were debriefed as part of the investigation. He said the two jets were part of a group of six that was conducting night training operations. The pilots were wearing night-vision goggles when the collision occurred, he said.

"We had planes spread out across the Southeast last night," Gentile said, adding that the bombing range is only about a 15-minute flight from the South Carolina base.

The F-16C models practice maneuvering against opponents and were involved in some of the earliest deployments in the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s. U.S. F/A 18 jet fighters from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort also were flying nighttime operations and contacted officials to help locate the pilots, Gentile said.

The National Guard, Marines and Air Force all use the area, said Lt. Col. Cindi King.

The pilots were talking normally and did not appear to be hurt when they were found, Jefferson County Fire Chief Jim Anderson said Wednesday. Anderson said there were no injuries on the ground.

One pilot was found in a pasture and the other at the edge of some woods. Both were taken to the hospital as a precaution, he said.

The collision happened less than a week after crashes involving both of the military's precision flying teams.

A Blue Angels F/A-18 crashed last Thursday near Nashville, Tennessee, while taking off for a practice session. The pilot, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, was killed.

That same day, a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, but that pilot, Maj. Alex Turner, ejected safely. The Thunderbirds had just performed over the open-air graduation ceremony at the nearby Air Force Academy, where President Barack Obama spoke.

In May, two Navy jet fighters collided off the North Carolina coast. The four people on board the jets were pulled from the Atlantic Ocean by a commercial fishing ship.


This story has been corrected to reflect that the name of the bombing range is the Bulldog Military Operations Area, not the Townsend Bombing Range.


Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.