It was humid outside, so John Sanford was riding around on a tractor, cautiously monitoring for wildfires around his family’s South Carolina plantation when he received a call telling him that a fighter jet had crashed and exploded on the property.
John, the brother of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and himself a civilian pilot for 31 years, drove to a nearby field to examine the crash site. He saw a white parachute dangling from one of the hundreds of grand live oak trees on the plantation, and hopped off the tractor to run toward it.
“I assumed the worst,” John Sanford told Military.com, “I knew what I might be seeing, and I knew it might be ugly.”
When he arrived at the tree line, he saw a young man in uniform and a woman with a cut near her mouth, walking towards him out of some nearby bushes.
“I knew it was the pilots because they were carrying their survival gear, their seat and their helmets,” he recalled. “They walked up to the fence, and the man asked me, ‘Are there any civilians where the plane went down and do you think anyone got hurt?'”
“He just got ejected out of an airplane and had the presence of mind to ask that question, which I thought was very impressive,” John Sanford continued. “When the pilots popped out of the bushes, I just could not possibly have been more happy.”
“There were no fatalities as a result of the crash,” MCAS Beaufort said in a statement. “Both Marines onboard the jet safely ejected with no injuries and are in stable condition.”
Military investigators, base personnel and fire and rescue teams from the nearby town swamped the property shortly after the plane went down.
The crash did cause damage to a portion of the family’s 3,000 acre property. Mark Sanford, a former U.S. congressman and governor, told Military.com that a large fire broke out when the plane exploded on impact and it wasn’t extinguished until much later that evening.
The former governor, who was not at the scene when the incident happened, said the crash wasn’t too far from where his dad is buried on the plantation. It was his father’s final wish to be laid to rest under the centuries-old live oaks.
“So, those big oaks where we buried dad, any number of them are definitely goners with the explosion and fire that ensued,” Mark Sanford said. “Within the scope of things, it’s a much bigger loss for taxpayers with the loss of the jet and, thankfully, there was no loss of life.”
Thursday’s incident is not the first time an aircraft from MCAS Beaufort has crashed in the surrounding community.
Devastation struck on April 21, 2007, when Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis, a Blue Angels pilot, crashed his F-18 into a residential neighborhood near the base. A temporary decrease in blood flow to his brain caused by the gravitational pull likely caused Davis to experience tunnel vision and become disoriented, according to military investigators.
Davis broke formation and crashed, dying on impact. The crash caused extensive damage to nearby homes, and eight people on the ground were injured.
More recently, in September 2018, an F-35B Lightning II jet crashed on Little Barnwell Island, a marshy area west of the base. The pilot ejected safely from the single-seat jet, and no civilians were injured.
MCAS Beaufort said a safety investigation into Thursday’s mishap is ongoing.
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.