Pilot parachutes to safety before Thunderbird crashes

Published: Jun. 2, 2016 at 1:07 PM MDT
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A Thunderbird pilot was able to parachute to safety after aircraft issues caused his jet to go down in the Security-Widefield area Thursday afternoon.

The crash happened immediately following the annual Thunderbird performance at the Air Force Academy graduation. Witnesses say the plane landed in a field near the Powers and Fontaine intersection, across the street from First Baptist Church-Peaceful Valley. The field is owned by El Paso County.

The aircraft was on its final approach to the Colorado Springs Airport, according to Peterson Air Force Base spokesperson Jeff Bohn.

"The indication that we have that we received there radio-wise is that he did have an issue with the aircraft and that he was getting out of the aircraft," Thunderbirds spokesperson Christopher Hammond said.

Hammond said the pilot was close to a residential area when he started having problems.

"He made a conscious effort to maneuver his aircraft away from neighborhoods," he said.

Debbie Cooper had pulled over near Powers and Fontaine to take pictures of the Thunderbirds for her grandsons when she noticed something wasn't quite right.

"Took a few [photos] from way up high, got back in the car and started on the road again...then I saw a parachute come down," Debbie Cooper told 11 News. "I thought, 'this is really strange that this is happening,' so I pulled over again, took a picture of the pilot coming down -- and then from a distance I saw the plane out in the field."

Her pictures show the pilot safely following his aircraft via parachute to the ground below.

"I was just really scared for the pilot and the accident itself," Cooper told 11 News. "I didn't know there was only one pilot in the plane, so I was really concerned that there was somebody else in the plane on the field."

The pilot, identified as Maj. Alex Turner, was able to land the jet intact -- despite ejecting.

"It was slow speed, it was close to the ground [prior to crashing]...it looks like it impacted the ground, skidded a bit...it was a total aircraft [after landing]," Hammond said.

"I think it is a testament to the exceptional pilotism of our Air Force Thunderbird pilot," Bohn said.

Indeed, according to a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who spoke with our partners at The Gazette, Turner made three critical decisions to save his life and others -- recognize his jet was malfunctioning, steer it away from houses and eject -- in the span of two or three seconds.

"Instantly, he has to react and react correctly - and he did," Dan Hampton said.

The jet was intact upon crashing. (Credit: KCNC chopper)

An Army helicopter supporting the Secret Service picked Turner up and took him to Peterson Air Force Base for medical observation. He got out of the hospital later Thursday night.

"After he ejected from the aircraft, we did confirm from one of our aircrafts that we kept airborne that he was OK on the ground, in terms of being able to walk around on his own accord. He also met with some bystanders, and then as far as when he arrived at Peterson Air Force Base I was able to see him in person and...I had no cause for concern," Hammond said.

President Obama was preparing to depart on Air Force One when Turner was dropped off at Peterson. The president spent a few minutes speaking with the pilot. Obama, "thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

The president also thanked first responders.

Alex Turner
President Obama meeting with Maj. Alex Turner(Credit: The Gazette)

According to a bio on the Thunderbirds website, Turner is in his first year with the team, but has ample experience flying with the military. His bio states he has logged 1,200 flight hours as an Air Force pilot and more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq.

Turner flies in the number six position when in formation, according to Hammond.

Turner's mother spoke to our sister station in Boston. She said Turner has always had a fascination with planes from a young age. She also talked about the moment she found out her son was in an accident.

"My stomach dropped. My heart was pounding. It's hard when you know your child is going through something like that. You have to trust he knows what he's doing. He's had good training, but you still worry as a mom," said Ann Turner.

Due to the crash occurring near a neighborhood, many people found themselves unable to access their home -- or leave, if they were home at the time of the accident -- because of concerns about a fuel carried on the jet. Hydrazine can be extremely dangerous if people come in contact with it. Authorities kept a large area surrounding the crash site off limits to the general public as a precaution, while they ensured nothing was bumped or leaked out while the site was secured.

Restricted movement was lifted for residents several hours after the crash, though some roads near the site remained closed through early Friday morning. All roads are now reopened.

The jet is expected to be moved sometime Friday, but the investigation is far from over. A safety investigation board will arrive Saturday to try and find out what caused the crash.

The Thunderbirds will not perform while this crash is under investigation. Thursday night, they cancelled their upcoming weekend show in Albuquerque.

A minor issue compared to how terrible the crash could have been: news out of Tennessee that a U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot was killed in a crash underscored the tragedy averted in Colorado.

Alex Turner
Alex Turner