The F/A-18D Hornet plunged to the ground near Cather Avenue and Huggins Street, about a mile northwest of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just before noon, according to San Diego police and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The pilot, who had been on a training flight over the ocean and was heading toward the military base when the accident occurred, parachuted into an overgrown area near University City High School, landing in a tree. Medics took him to Balboa Naval Hospital for an evaluation.
The crash and resulting blaze destroyed two homes and sent a thick column of black smoke into the sky, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Emergency crews found the remains of three people, whose identities were not immediately known, in the scorched rubble of one of the gutted houses. One other resident of that home remained unaccounted for in the mid-afternoon. "My heart goes out to the family of the victims and to the community of University City," Mayor Jerry Sanders said during a briefing near the crash site.
Military officials said some kind of equipment malfunction forced the pilot to eject. "We don't know exactly what was the cause of the problem he was having, and... we will be conducting a thorough safety investigation to find that out," Marine Corps Col. Chris O'Conner told reporters. Several witnesses reported hearing several loud popping sounds -- apparently the ejection mechanisms of the pilot's seat and the unoccupied second seat -- just before the jet went down.
Fire Capt. Randy Strick said crews responding to the three-alarm fire arrived to see "an aircraft engine in the middle of the street." Police shut down several streets in the neighborhood as crews doused the blaze and investigators began cataloguing evidence at the crash scene.
It took firefighters about 30 minutes to extinguish the flames.
Steve Diamond, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who witnessed the crash, said he went to the spot where he saw the pilot parachuting toward earth to see if the serviceman needed any assistance. "He was behind a house, in a tree," Diamond said. "I helped him out. He was in good condition. He had a cell phone and called his command."
In the moments leading up to the crash, the jet was flying "low and slow, approaching from the west, not a normal approach," he said. Diamond, 53, said he and the lieutenant who ejected from the plane discussed what had gone wrong with the craft. Diamond declined to disclose what the pilot said, other than that it involved a mechanical problem.
Cather Avenue resident Nora Bhes described the alarming noises caused by the plane crash. "It sounded like a thunderstorm with a real screech at the end of it," she said. "Then I heard loud pops like gunfire. And that's what I thought it was." Ilene Schroers lives on Huggins Street, about a block from the crash site. She initially thought the jarring sound of the jet hitting the ground "was a trash truck crashing. It was such a big noise." Schroers said she then looked out a window, saw neighbors running and called 911.
Sandy Huffaker, a freelance photographer who lives about a mile from where the aircraft went down, heard an unusual sound and went outside just in time to see pilot eject from the aircraft.
"Just bam -- he shot out about 25 feet in the air," he said.
(San Diego 10News)