UPDATED – Saturday morning, August 3, 2019
The U.S. Navy has identified the Navy pilot killed in a crash in Death Valley National Park as 33-year old Lt. Charles Z. Walker.
Walker died when the F/A-18 Super Hornet he was flying on a training mission crashed July 31. He was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 151 (The Vigilantes) based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California’s Central Valley.
“The NAS Lemoore aviation family is grieving the loss of one of our own,” said Capt. James Bates, commander, Strike Fighter Wing Pacific. “Lieutenant Walker was an incredible naval aviator, husband, and son. He was an integral member of the Vigilante family, and his absence will be keenly felt on the flight line.
“Our aviators understand the risk associated with this profession, and they knowingly accept it in service to our nation,” Bates continued. “The untimely loss of a fellow aviator and shipmate pains us all. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends.”
The cause of the crash is under investigation.
UPDATED – Thursday afternoon, August 1st, 2019:
The pilot of a U.S. Navy jet fighter that crashed in Death Valley National Park was killed, the military said Aug. 1.
The identity of the pilot will be withheld until 24 hours after notification of next-of-kin in accordance with Defense Department policy, the Navy said in a statement.
“The Navy mourns the loss of one of our own and our thoughts go out to the family and friends affected by this tragedy,” the commander, Naval Air Forces said in a Twitter statement this afternoon.
UPDATED – Thursday morning, August 1st, 2019:
Crews are searching for the pilot of a U.S. Navy fighter jet that crashed in Death Valley National Park, injuring seven people who were at a scenic overlook where aviation enthusiasts routinely watch military aircraft speeding low through a chasm dubbed Star Wars Canyon, officials said.
The crash sent dark smoke billowing in the air, said Aaron Cassell, who was working at his family’s Panamint Springs Resort about 10 miles away and was the first to report the crash to park dispatch.
“I just saw a black mushroom cloud go up,” Cassell told The Associated Press. “Typically you don’t see a mushroom cloud in the desert.”
A search was underway for the pilot of the single-seat F/A-18 Super Hornet that was on a routine training mission, said Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Bock, spokeswoman for Naval Air Station Lemoore in California’s Central Valley.
“The status of the pilot is unknown at this time,” Bock said about four hours after the crash.
Ambulances were sent to the crash site near Father Crowley Overlook, said park spokesman Patrick Taylor. He said initial reports were that seven park visitors had minor injuries. KABC-TV spoke to tourists who said they were treated at a hospital for minor burns and cuts from flying fragments after the plane crashed and exploded.
The injured tourists told the news station they were taking photos of the sweeping landscape when the jet screamed into view and slammed into the canyon wall.
The lookout point about 160 miles north of Los Angeles is popular with photographers and aviation buffs who gawk at jets flying in the steep, narrow canyon. Officials closed the area after the crash.
U.S. and foreign militaries train pilots and test jets in the gorge officially called Rainbow Canyon near the park’s western entrance. Military flights there date back to World War II.
The chasm got its nickname because mineral-rich soil and red, gray and pink walls bring to mind the home planet of “Star Wars” character Luke Skywalker.
Training flights are almost a daily feature with jets thundering below the rim of the canyon and passing so close viewers can see the pilots’ facial expressions.
Cassell said he heard jets roaring through the area and then saw the cloud of smoke.
“It looked like a bomb,” Cassell said. “To me that speaks of a very violent impact.”
A jet that was following the downed craft pulled up and began circling, Cassell said. He didn’t see any parachute.
His father drove up to the area after the crash and saw a large black scorch mark and shattered parts of the jet scattered throughout the area between the parking lot and lookout, Cassell said. A nose cone from the jet was the size of a bowling ball and the rest of the debris was no larger than a ball cap.
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. AP
BREAKING NEWS – Wednesday afternoon, July 31st, 2019:
A single-seat U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., crashed at approximately 9:50 a.m., PDT, July 31.
The aircraft was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151 – the Vigilantes.
A spokesperson for NAS Lemoore said the single-seat warplane went down around about 40 miles north of the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake.
Callaghan went on to say that the crash site is on the western edge of Death Valley.
Search and rescue personnel are on scene and the status of the pilot is currently unknown.
The Navy says the plane was on a routine training mission when it crashed. VFA-151 is part of Carrier Air Wing 9 which returned to California earlier this year after completing a deployment aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74).
China Lake, which is about 120 miles north of Los Angeles, was the epicenter of a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on July 4, and a 7.1 magnitude quake July 5.