The U.S. Navy late Thursday identified two Naval aviators who were killed Wednesday when the F/A-18F Super Hornet they were in crashed into shallow water at Naval Air Station Key West.
The aviators have been identified as Lt. Cmdr. James Brice Johnson and Lt. Caleb Nathaniel King, both Florida residents.
Johnson, a naval aviator and 2007 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was piloting the jet when the incident occurred. King, a 2012 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was serving as the weapons systems operator.
Both pilots were assigned to the Blacklions of Strike Fighter Squadron Two One Three, based at Naval Air Station Oceana and assigned to Carrier Air Wing Eight.
“The entire Blacklion Family is grieving the loss of two great Americans. Lt. Cmdr. Johnson and Lt. King were phenomenal young men, exceptional naval aviators, and were living models of what honor, courage and commitment really mean,” said VFA-213's commanding officer, Cmdr. Kevin Robb.
“As warfighters they excelled in combat, as naval officers they exemplified the qualities of what our Navy values most dear. I was extremely proud to have led, flown and served with both Brice and Caleb,” Robb said. “I would ask that during this trying time, we all keep the families of our two heroes in our thoughts and prayers.”
The F/A-18F remains in the water where it crashed and will stay there until a Mishap Investigation Board (MIB) conducts its investigation. Naval officers with extensive experience in all aspects of aviation will conduct the investigation, the Navy said.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and squadron mates of these two aviators,” said Rear Adm. Roy J. Kelley, commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic. “A full investigation will be conducted to discover the cause of this mishap.”
The aviators were flying near Key West when the two-seater jet crashed around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Both were recovered by helicopter about one mile east of the runway and taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center, said Cmdr. Dave Hecht, public affairs officer for Naval Air Force Atlantic.
A witness said it looked like the plane experienced some sort of explosion in the air.
“I saw the fire and then it just dropped,” said Barbie Wilson, who lives nearby and was driving when she said saw the plane turn sideways and then burst into flames.
But the cause of the mishap will take time for the Navy to determine what happened.
“We are weeks if not months away from knowing that,” Hecht said.
One veteran military pilot said a preliminary report could be issued in the next few days, but it will likely include no new details.
“It will be public, but it will be only acknowledging the loss of the airplane and the two lives,” said Randy Reep, an attorney in Jacksonville who flies an F-15 jet for the Air Force’s Air National Guard. “The aviation investigation process is a slow, methodical process because you don’t want to draw false conclusions.”
Reep, who has flown the F-15 — which he said is similar to the Super Hornet — in and out of Key West, said such crashes are rare.
“Obviously on approach or on takeoff is when you’re closest to the ground and that’s when it’s most dangerous,” he said. “This is a surprising accident.”
Reep said an F-18 having two aviators on board and two engines usually helps defuse an emergency.
“Even the loss of one engine should not result in the loss of a plane or the lives of two crew members,” he said.
Meanwhile, Naval Air Station Key West Commanding Officer Capt. Bobby Baker Thursday issued a notice that crash site area off Boca Chica Field is restricted and off-limits to all civilians, boaters or other personal water craft as well as air craft.
“We’re asking the public not to boat near the area as the crash is under investigation by Navy and federal authorities,” Baker said. “Additionally, combat air training has resumed so it’s imperative civilian aircraft remain clear of military airspace.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen