Navy fighter jet crashes

Rhea County firefighters used foam to extinguish the blaze when a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet caught fire and crashed into a pasture in the Pennine community Monday morning. The pilot, who steered the plane clear of Spring City before ejecting, sustained only a broken ankle. Above, Rhea County firefighters fight the fire. The emblem of the plane's squadron, the Blue Dolphins, can just be seen on the charred tail fin. (Herald-News photo by John Carpenter)

The sounds of a sputtering engine turned heads Monday morning in the Pennine community south of Spring City, but this time it wasn't a car backfiring, it was the sound of a Navy jet about to crash. Commander Kevin Hagenstad was flying his F/A-18 Hornet alongside an unidentified wingman from Bristol, Tenn., to the Naval Air Station at Atlanta, Ga., when the crash occurred at about 10:50 a.m. The Hornet is one of the most versatile aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. The $56-million, twin-engined, single-seat jet is used as both an air-superiority and a ground-attack aircraft and can be both land and carrier based. It can carry a wide variety of armament and has excellent night-fighting capabilities. The jet is used by the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Hagenstad is a member of VFA-203 Blue Dolphins squadron based in Atlanta. The elite fighter squadron performed at the Food City 500 NASCAR race Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Cmdr. Hagenstad had 15 years of experience in the Navy and thousands of hours in the F/A-18, according to Cmdr. Jack Hanzlik, U.S. Naval Reserve public affairs officer. Billy Cranfield, director of the Rhea County Emergency Management Agency and Rhea County fire chief, said Hagenstad's wingman was also flying an F/A-18, but a Rhea County Sheriff's Department deputy, who asked not to be identified, said the pilot told him the other plane was a $100-million experimental aircraft. The two planes were flying very low over the Tennessee River when Hagenstad's Hornet's right wing clipped three 16,000-kilovolt electrical transmission lines across the mouth of Piney River near the Ware Farms Subdivision, according to Cranfield. The power lines run from the TVA-Watts Bar hydroelectric plant to Huber Corp.'s Whites Creek Plant in the Roddy community. TVA officials said the power lines were just 75 feet above the river. Kevin Rhymer of Spring City was on Muddy Creek Road just a short distance from where the jet apparently hit the TVA power lines when he heard the jets coming overhead: "When I first looked up, I saw one jet with flames coming out of the back and the other jet flying behind it," Rhymer said. "Then the other jet started flying beside the one having problems. It sounded funny-like the engine was missing." Hagenstad's plane climbed sharply after clipping the transmission lines, then dropped its single external fuel pod into Watts Bar Lake near Lakewood Village, according to several sources. The Hornet then headed southwest, away from Spring City, with its wingman alongside. Randy Watters of Grandview was traveling south on Rhea County Highway when he saw the two jets. "Flames came out of the back of the one jet," Watters said. "I knew he was in trouble. Then the pilot ejected, and the jet did a nosedive into the field near Tidwell's Berry Farm." Watters called for help on his radio. "Emergency help was at the site within minutes. Everyone responded very quickly," he said. The fast response was due in part to the fact that the plane crashed into a pasture about 500 yards south of where a Rhea County Emergency Medical Service ambulance was stationed. Paramedic Ed Cerantonio and EMT Donald Moore responded immediately. Dave Tatum of Pennine Farm Supply was on the telephone in his business just north of the crash site on Rhea County Highway when he heard "popping sounds." Tatum jumped in his truck with his camera and arrived on the scene just after the ambulance service arrived. Scott Thomas also heard the distressed aircraft just up the road at the intersection of Rhea County Highway and Watts Bar Highway. He also jumped into his vehicle and headed to the crash site. He said he and Marty Maddux cut the fence into the pasture where the pilot landed, still in his ejection seat, so that the ambulance could get in. When rescuers reached Hagenstad, he was already on his cell phone notifying his commanding officer of the crash, Thomas said. "He waited until the very last minute to eject because he said he wanted to make sure he wouldn't endanger any lives. He couldn't have been more than 500 or 600 feet up when he punched out," Thomas said. "I give him a lot of credit." Hagenstad landed about 325 yards from the plane in an adjoining field on the Francis Maddux farm, according to Cranfield. Pennine Farm Supply Supervisor Glenn Craighead was outside loading feed into a truck when he saw the jet closing in on his location. He agreed with Thomas's assessment. "I thought the jet was going to hit the feed store; the pilot was trying to restart the engine," Craighead explained. "Every time he tried to restart it, it threw out flames and popping noises. I knew he was in serious trouble, so I called 911 just as the jet hit the ground. The pilot really did a good job of guiding the jet down in an unpopulated area." After Hagenstad ejected, the plane clipped a tree and crashed in the middle of an empty pasture. The plane broke up and caught fire, scattering debris over a 150-yard radius. Rhea Ambulance transported Hagenstad to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga for treatment of a broken ankle. He was listed in fair condition on Monday afternoon. The pilot's injury was likely due to the low altitude at which he ejected, according to Cranfield. His ejection seat parachute was only partially opened when the seat hit the ground. Dozens of emergency workers from the Rhea County Sheriff's Department, Rhea County Volunteer Fire Department, Rhea County Homeland Security Team, Spring City Police Department, Tennessee Highway Patrol and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Division of Forestry and Rhea County Civil Air Patrol all raced to the scene. Emergency workers were followed by hundreds of spectators. Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said his greatest challenge was to keep people away from the crash site. "While we were securing the perimeter, we also had to figure out exactly what we were dealing with since it was a military jet," Neal said. "Once we learned there weren't any weapons or hazardous materials onboard, the fire department went ahead and put the fire out with water and foam." A THP helicopter pilot spotted the expended fuel pod in Watts Bar Lake near Spruce Drive. TVA Police and TWRA boats retrieved the fuel pod and contained a small fuel spill on the surface. The downed high-voltage transmission lines started a fire in Ware Farms Subdivision that the Pine Grove Fire District and Tennessee Division of Forestry firefighters were able to extinguish, Cranfield said. Navy investigators from Atlanta and Air Force security officers from Knoxville arrived at the crash site about two hours after the crash and took control of the site. Rhea County Homeland Security Team members remained at the crash site throughout the night and through the day Tuesday to provide perimeter security for the military, Neal said. Navy investigators worked through the night sifting through the debris, searching for clues to explain why both the jet's engines failed after it clipped the power lines, according to Cranfield. Investigators told him they would probably haul away the remains of the plane on Thursday. A final determination into the details of the crash is likely months away. "You want to find the cause so you can avoid it in the future," Hanzlik said. John Carpenter can be reached at jcarpenter@xtn.net.