The pilot of a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet that crashed in Star Wars Canyon in Death Valley died in the crash, military officials confirmed Thursday.
The Navy is withholding the identity of the flyer until 24 hours after his family is notified, “in accordance with Department of Defense policy,” Lt. Commander Lydia Ellen Bock, spokesperson for the Joint Strike Fighter Wing, said in a statement.
“The Navy mourns the loss of one of our own and our hearts go out to the family and friends affected by this tragedy,” Bock said.
Navy officials launched a search-and-rescue operation for the pilot Wednesday after the F/A-18E Super Hornet jet crashed about 40 miles north of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.
“I saw a black mushroom cloud go up,” Aaron Cassell, who was at his family’s Panamint Springs Resort about 10 miles away, told the Associated Press. “Typically you don’t see a mushroom cloud in the desert.”
Seven tourists on the ground were peppered with flying fragments from the crash and were treated for minor injuries, the report said.
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Military craft are generally prohibited from flying over national parks, but there’s an exception for part of Death Valley, parks spokesman Patrick Taylor said.
The downed jet, part of the “Vigilantes” strike force based more than 200 miles away at a naval base in Lemoore, California, went down around 3 p.m. EST.
The F/A-18 is a twin-engine combat jet that makes up the backbone of the Navy’s airborne fleet.