SAN DIEGO — The pilot of a fuel tanker showed impressive skills when he touched down safely in a remote area of California and prevented injuries among the seven other crew members after a mid-air collision with a fighter jet, a Marine Corps official and safety aviation expert said Wednesday.
It was unclear what happened to cause the F-35B to collide with the KC-130J tanker in the late afternoon Tuesday, said 1st Lt. Brett Vannier, a spokesman at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
The fighter jet was refueling when the collision occurred. The pilot ejected successfully from the F-35B. The tanker pilot landed the big aircraft on its belly in a field near the desert town of Thermal.
“It was an impressive maneuver bringing it down safely by force,” Vannier said. “His skills kind of speak to itself just in the fact that everyone survived.”
Aviation safety consultant and retired Marine Corps Col. Pete Field, a former director of the Naval Test Pilot School, agreed.
“I think the KC-130 crew did a masterful job of airmanship to get that baby down,” Field said, noting the size of the tanker that can carry up to 60,000 pounds (27,215 kilos) of fuel.
Military officials said the cause of the collision is under investigation and they could not discuss the damage to the aircraft or other details.
Field, who examined photos of the damaged tanker, said he does not know how things went wrong during what is generally a routine operation.
The images show liquid pouring out of the tanker’s port wing and damage to the propeller blades, among other things.
Mid-air refueling “on any airplane in the fighter world is something that pilots learn to do in their training command. It’s a basic thing,” Field said. “This shouldn’t have been done badly.”
Often the blame lies with the jet pilot who can approach a tanker too quickly or can get too close and not be able to compensate, Field said. But that is highly unusual with today’s radar systems and a sophisticated plane like the F-35B. The crash also occurred during the day when visibility should have been good.
Field wondered how much experience the pilot had on the F-35B, a complicated plane.
There have been deadly accidents during mid-air refueling. On Dec. 6, 2018, a KC-130J and an F/A-18D collided during a night refueling off the coast of Japan, killing six U.S. Marines.
A military investigation found the fighter pilot was not experienced in mid-air refueling missions at night and unintentionally crossed over the top of the tanker, colliding with the rear of the KC-130J. Poor training was also a factor, the investigation found, and squadron leaders were fired as a result.
The F-35B is a single-seat combat aircraft that can take off and land conventionally and vertically. That plane crashed near the Salton Sea, an inland lake about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of downtown San Diego.
The four-engine turboprop tanker landed in Thermal, a small desert city in Riverside County about 125 miles (200 kilometers) northeast of downtown San Diego.
Photos from the scene posted online by NBC Palm Springs show a military plane on its belly in a farm field near Thermal Airport.
The cause of the crash is under investigation.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the planes were on a routine mission or a training exercise.