A fire aboard a dual-seat F/A-18 Hornet is thought to be what caused two Beaufort fighter pilots to eject Wednesday over the Atlantic Ocean during a training mission.
Maj. Duane Liptak and Capt. Jonathan Hutchison were about 80 miles offshore when the fire started, said Lt. Col. Joseph Maybach, commanding officer of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224. The cause of the fire and where it began have not been determined.Maybach said the pilots initially thought they could make it back to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, but the fire spread and caused dual engine failure, leaving Hutchison and Liptak no choice but to eject at 5,000 feet and ditch the $29 million fighter jet. The plane went down at about 5:25 p.m. in the ocean about 30 miles east of the St. Helena Sound.
Liptak, the jet's pilot, and Hutchison, the weapons system officer, were spotted in the water by another F-18 crew training nearby within five minutes of ejecting, Maybach said.
A crew from Coast Guard Station Charleston plucked the pilots from an inflatable raft and had them back to the air station less than two hours after the crash, Maybach said.
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The Coast Guard recovered the jet's flight recorder Thursday morning, which will play an integral part in the Corps' investigation into what caused the fire and subsequent engine failures.
"We haven't had the chance to review the system data, so we don't know exactly what happened or why it happened," Maybach said.Maybach said Hutchison and Liptak were given the day off Thursday and that both pilots appear to be fine.
"We're very glad that they weren't injured," he said. "They ejected safely, which can be dangerous. Ejections can be fatal, and it's not uncommon to break arms and legs when you eject."
The 400-pound ejection seat in the F-18 Hornet is equipped with rockets that blast the pilot through the jet's canopy and into the air before deploying a parachute.
Wednesday's crash adds to what has been a challenging year for the squadron nicknamed The Fighting Bengals.
In October, two squadron pilots had to use an external fuel tank as a third wheel to land their fighter jet at Jacksonville International Airport after the F-18's left landing gear malfunctioned. The pilots were training near Jacksonville and were scheduled to perform a fly-over the next day at a Jacksonville Jaguars football game.