Airman dies as 2 fighter jets collide during training

.EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) – An Air Force fighter pilot died Wednesday after his jet and another likely collided during a training exercise and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. The other pilot was rescued and is expected to survive.

The single-seat F-15C Eagles crashed Wednesday off the Florida Panhandle, said Col. Todd Harmer, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, 58th Fighter Squadron. The pilots had ejected and were later rescued.

The base has suffered a “great loss,” Harmer said in an e-mailed statement. He said, “We will continue to do everything we can to assist our families and airmen at this tragic time.”

The cause of the collision about 35 miles south of Tyndall Air Force Base was not immediately known, but the Air Force will investigate, Harmer said. Weather in the area was clear.

The exercise emphasized “basic maneuvers and tactics,” Harmer said.

A Coast Guard rescue jet located one pilot and radioed the location to a fishing vessel, which picked him up, said Coast Guard Petty Officer James Harless. A Coast Guard helicopter then hoisted the pilot off the vessel.

That pilot told rescuers he saw the other pilot also eject but lost him in the clouds, Harless said. He told them the approximate location for the second pilot, who was found by a Coast Guard helicopter, Harless said.

Both pilots had been with the wing “for quite some time,” Harmer said.

No debris from the jets has been found, Harless said.

The Air Force grounded all of its F-15s – nearly 700 – after the catastrophic failure of an F-15C during a routine training flight in Missouri in November. The pilot safely ejected.

Most were back in service by January, but others were grounded indefinitely after defects were found.

The Air Force began using the F-15C in 1979. The planes, built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991 in support of Operation Desert Storm and have since been used in Iraq, Turkey and Bosnia.

The planes can fly as high as 65,000 feet, and each costs about $30 million, according to the Air Force.