A U.S. Navy single-seat F/A-18E fighter jet crashed on Wednesday in Death Valley, California, according to the Navy. The pilot has died and seven individuals on the ground suffered minor injuries, a spokesperson for Death Valley National Park said.
"At approximately 10 a.m. PST, a F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the ‘Vigilantes’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151 based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, crashed east of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California," said Joint Strike Fighter Wing public affairs officer, Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Bock on Wednesday.
"The cause of the crash is currently under investigation," she added.
The Navy confirmed on Thursday that the pilot, assigned to the "Vigilantes" of Strike Fighter Squadron 151 has died. The identity of the pilot will be withheld until 24 hours after notification of next of kin.
Two pilots were flying a pair of planes on a training mission, but only one returned, Strike Fighter Wing Pacific commander Capt. James Bates said at a press conference on Wednesday. He said it remained unclear whether the pilot was a man or woman and what the pilot's rank is, but said that the crash occurred 6 miles north of China Lake.
Tim Cassell, owner of the Panamint Springs Resort nearby, said he got in his truck and drove up to the crash site.
"I stopped my vehicle, got out and walked over to the edge and attempted to see if I could see any large pieces of the aircraft," Cassell said. "I was unable to see anything other than a large blackened area, some of the bushes were still on fire. And there was smoke and then debris all over the ground around me."
"The pieces of the aircraft were smaller than a dinner plate ... and scattered over a large area," he added.
Patrick Taylor, a spokesperson for Death Valley National Park, said the park received a report around 10 a.m. PT from the Panamint Springs Resort that a military plane had crashed on the west side of Death Valley near Father Crowley Overlook in an area known as Star Wars Canyon.
At approximately 10:00 a.m PST an F/A-18E crashed near @NAWS_CL. Search-and-rescue efforts are underway.— flynavy (@flynavy) July 31, 2019
The area has been used for military training flights since the 1930s, Taylor said, and regularly attracts tourists who want to get a glimpse of military pilots in action weaving through the narrow canyon in maneuvers reminiscent of the Star Wars movie.
Seven individuals on ground suffered minor injuries.
They sustained burns, cuts and scrapes from shrapnel flying through the air when the jet crashed, according to KABC. The injuries were mostly to their backs, arms and legs as they ran away from the crash site, about 50 meters from where they were standing.
The Father Crowley Overlook was temporarily closed. Emergency responders from the park, military and Inyo County were dispatched to the scene.