Two S.C. Air National Guard pilots whose F-16 fighter jets collided and crashed Tuesday evening in rural Georgia are among the most experienced of the “Swamp Foxes,” the nickname for the 24-jet fighter wing stationed at McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover.
The pilots, who ejected from the jets, were not identified by the Guard as a matter of policy, a spokeswoman said. They will be grounded until a U.S. Air Force investigation of the crash is completed.
Both pilots are lieutenant colonels, senior pilots in the 169th Fighter Wing, pilot instructors and combat veterans, Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state’s Adjutant General, said at a news conference Wednesday at McEntire. Together, they have about 30 years of experience flying F-16s, he said.
“They were very seasoned and have spent their careers in F-16s ,” Livingston said.
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The two pilots returned to McEntire with no noticeable injuries Wednesday morning. Their jets collided during a night exercise over Georgia, authorities said. The crash occurred in the Bulldog Military Operations Area in middle Georgia.
The pilots and four others from McEntire were training for a deployment later this summer to the Pacific region, authorities said.
Both pilots manually ejected after colliding, authorities said. They were found about three miles apart: one by a farmer and the other by a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy.
“They saw the chutes,” guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cindi King said.
The jets crashed in a remote, rural area. There were no injuries on the ground.
“Although this incident is unfortunate, we are truly blessed that both pilots are safe,” Livingston said.
The pilots, both of whom live in the Midlands, were treated at Jefferson Hospital in Louisville , Ga. “They walked away,” said 169th Fighter Wing commander Col. Nicholas Gentile.
The Guard did not release details such as air speed or altitude.
Wreckage from the two planes was found about two miles apart in heavily wooded areas in Jefferson County, Ga., which is southwest of Augusta.
The aircraft were purchased in the 1990s for $30 million to $32 million each, Gentile said. He said he didn’t know if the aircraft would be replaced.
The two pilots were flying their one-seat jets using night vision optics, which limits visibility. They were practicing enemy anti-aircraft battery suppression missions. “It’s like the old Wild Weasel operations from Vietnam,” Livingston said.
Wild Weasels were the names of various jets like the F-105 Thunderchief and F-4 Phantom that destroyed ground-to-air missile batteries during the Vietnam War.
The F-16s at McEntire specialize in taking out ground targets, especially anti-aircraft weapons. They also have air-to-air dog-fighting capability.
The 169th Fighter Wing is scheduled to deploy to the Pacific this summer in support of U.S. military operations there. About 280 to 350 Air Guard personnel are expected to be deployed. The Guard wouldn’t release the number of aircraft.
The two pilots are still training on the ground for the deployment, King said. She said the two would be deployed if the investigation is completed by the deployment date and the pilots are cleared to fly.