WASHINGTON - The U.S. Air Force said today it had temporarily grounded its fleet of F-117A "stealth" fighters after the crash of one of the bat-wing planes in suburban Baltimore yesterday.
The $43 million fighter plane, one like those that flew the first missions in the Persian Gulf War against the most heavily defended Iraqi targets, had just completed three passes over the airport when trouble became apparent.
The pilot of the Nighthawk fighter turned the nose upward, and suddenly pieces of the craft could be seen flying off. The plane flipped over and tumbled helplessly to the ground in Middle River, Md., a Baltimore suburb.
Thousands of spectators at Glenn L. Martin State Airport, where about 12,000 people had paid $10 to $12 to watch a two-day annual air show, and on boats in nearby rivers watched yesterday as the plane went out of view behind a stand of trees. There was a loud explosion, followed by a plume of thick black smoke.
The pilot could be seen parachuting to the ground as the smoke from the destroyed craft rose in the sky.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane's left wing break apart and hit the tail, apparently taking out the jet's vertical stabilizer.
"The pilot stayed with it as long as he could, but you could see he didn't have control," said Marty Campanella, a commercial pilot in Baltimore who attended the air show.
"I would say the airplane came unglued."
The plane, which was carrying 11,000 pounds of fuel, crashed into a waterfront neighborhood, exploding in flames. It set two houses on fire and slightly injured six people on the ground, including an elderly woman at home when the jet hit her garage. The pilot ejected safely.
John Wolff, from New Jersey, thought the plane's actions were part of the show. "My first impression was, `Hey, they're pulling something on us - that plane isn't really going to crash,' " he said.
"Then it became apparent it was the real thing," Wolff added. "I never expected anything like that at all, and here it's happening right in front of my eyes."
John Stumpf, 13, and his brother, Jared, heard the crash, walked out of their home and saw the dazed pilot, Maj. Bryan Knight, who had parachuted into a driveway about 60 feet from where his plane went down.
"He turned and he looked at us and he said, `I'm really sorry,' " John Stumpf said.
Knight was treated at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for minor back and neck injuries. Knight is an instructor pilot with more than 2,770 flying hours, including 500 in the F-117A.
"He said he was truly sorry about what had happened and said he tried to pull it out. He wanted to land this thing in the water, but couldn't," said Andy Kunkowski, who saw the crash from a boat in Chesapeake Bay and spoke to Knight after he parachuted down. "He said everything was fine until he started to make an incline."
Col. Virginia Pribyla, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said the plane went into a "flat spin where it is completely and totally out of control." Pentagon officials did not dispute witnesses' accounts, but they would not confirm that the plane broke apart.
Military officials located the flight data recorder from the plane.
The fighter, built by Lockheed Martin, uses special design and materials to avoid enemy radar. During much of the 1980s, it was so secret the military didn't acknowledge its existence.
Since the fighters went into official service in 1990, three have been destroyed in crashes, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Keri Humphrey said. One pilot died in a crash on a night training flight in 1995 in New Mexico.
There had been at least three earlier crashes - one when Lockheed was testing the jet and fatal wrecks in California and Nevada in 1986 and 1987.
The aircraft, assigned to the 7th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., was one of two F-117As loaned temporarily to Langley Air Force Base to support air shows in the eastern U.S., the Air Force said.
The fighter wing suspended routine flights as a precautionary measure through today.
Air Force officials said the pilot, who had performed Saturday in another air show in Syracuse, N.Y., was supposed to do only three fly-bys, each at about 300 knots at 1,000 feet. But witnesses said the plane was in a steep climb when they saw debris falling from the sky.
Hours after the crash, 22 rescue workers, including firefighters and a police officer, had to be taken to the hospital complaining of breathing problems, mild nausea and headaches, Mark Hubbard a battalion chief of the Baltimore County Fire Department said Monday. None was admitted.
They were part of an initial response group of 125 that raced to the crash site, Hubbard said.
Authorities believe the rescue workers' breathing difficulties were related to smoke from carbon fibers which make up the fuselage of the top-secret, radar-invisible fighter.
Compiled from Baltimore Sun, Reuters, Associated Press and Washington Post reports.