AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (CBS/AP) — A Thunderbirds pilot from Chelmsford who ejected safely as his fighter jet crashed into a deserted Colorado area after soaring over the Air Force Academy’s commencement ceremony got a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama.
Maj. Alex Turner had just flown over the crowd watching Obama’s commencement address Thursday afternoon when something went wrong and he was forced to ditch his plane. The jet skidded a few hundred yards across a grassy field, leaving a smudgy, gray mark before coming to rest on its belly.
Turner, who has logged more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq, parachuted safely and was not seriously injured. Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, commander of the Thunderbirds, said that the pilot maneuvered the plane so it would not crash into a nearby residential neighborhood.
Turner landed about a half-mile from his plane and seemed “pretty calm” when firefighters from the nearby town of Security arrived, said Pete Smith, a member of the Security Fire Department.
“I would have been a little more upset than he was,” Smith said.
News of the crash broke while Obama’s motorcade was returning to Peterson Air Force Base for his flight back to Washington. Turner ejected about 15 miles south of the Air Force Academy near Peterson, where Air Force One was waiting to take off.
Emergency responders who picked up Turner in the rescue helicopter brought him to a spot that happened to be on the president’s motorcade route back to Air Force One.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the pilot met Obama, and the president told him it might be a good time to contact his wife and let her know that he’s OK.
It was one of two crashes Thursday for the military’s elite fighter jet performance teams. An official in Tennessee said a pilot was killed when his Blue Angels fighter jet crashed, but no civilians were hurt on the ground. The Navy’s Blue Angels team was near Nashville practicing for a scheduled performance this weekend.
The Thunderbirds are the Air Force’s precision flying team, known for their red, white and blue painted F-16 fighter jets. The unit, based out of Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, will perform more than 40 shows in 2016, according to its website. The vaunted aerial demonstration team has been performing air demonstrations since 1947.
The Air Force said the Thunderbirds will cancel upcoming shows while the crash is investigated, but officials did not say for how long.
Maj. Turner attended high school in Chelmsford, and his parents still live there. Fear and anxiety overcame Ann and Peter Turner when they learned their son was in a crash.
“I could barely catch my breath,” Ann Turner told WBZ-TV on Thursday. “My stomach just dropped. My heart was pounding and I just broke down.”
They said Maj. Turner’s love for planes began when he was young, and that he followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Air Force.
Peter Turner said his son’s thorough training is what gave the day a happy ending.
“We had long discussions about staying with a doomed aircraft,” said Peter. “Don’t do it, you know, follow the book, get out when you’re supposed to.”
Maj. Turner’s parents had hoped to see him at an upcoming air show in Rhode Island, but the Thunderbirds are currently grounded as the crash is investigated. They said they can’t wait to see him again.
“I’ve seen the pictures, and he’s okay,” said Ann Turner. “But, I need to give him a hug.”
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