Lt. Wesley Baumgartner is lucky to be alive.
The 26-year old Navy pilot assigned to VFA-15 -- the Valions --
was part of a two-aircraft flight taking off from Raleigh-Durham
International Airport Friday, when his F/A-18 Hornet (file photo of
type, below) burst into flames. Baumgartner ejected from the
aircraft with minor injuries, as the Hornet cartwheeled down the
runway, engulfed in fire. Air traffic was halted for hours, as was
ground traffic on a nearby interstate, while officials put out the
fire, cleaned up the wreckage and began the investigation.
"He's got a bump on the head," Baumgartner's father, William,
told The News & Observer of Raleigh. "He'll be recovering there
for a day or so."
The pilot was on a training mission from Oceana Naval Air
Station in Virginia Beach (VA) and had stopped at RDU to refuel,
according to local news reports.
"The second military jet did a cartwheel, and when I lost sight
of it, the nose was burying into the ground," said Rob Shapard, a
reporter for the Raleigh Herald-Sun, who was on a flight that
hadn't yet pushed from the gate. He spoke by phone from the Delta
"It was surreal," he said. "It was almost like a NASCAR crash.
You could see dirt flying."
Baumgartner managed to eject about a third of the way down the
7500 foot-long runway, according to airport spokeswoman Teresa
Damiano. The F/A-18 continued to roll (and cartwheel) for another
4000 feet before coming to rest less than a football field's length
from the terminal.
The military is investigating the incident. In the meantime,
Baumgartner, who was knocked unconscious during his ejection, has
joined a very elite group of pilots. Brian A. Miller, executive
vice president of Martin-Baker America, is sending the lieutenant a
necktie covered with tiny red triangles -- the symbol painted on
aircraft equipped with ejection seats -- and a pair of silver
wings. Worldwide to date, about 7000 pilots have safely ejected
from their aircraft, he said. "Every few years, we throw a party
and they come."