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Lifeguard Captain Describes Rescue of Harrier Pilot

An AV-8B Harrier jump jet, the same type of aircraft that a Marine Corps pilot ejected from on May 6 before it crashed. (US Marine Corps/Tyler Bolken)
An AV-8B Harrier jump jet, the same type of aircraft that a Marine Corps pilot ejected from on May 6 before it crashed. (US Marine Corps/Tyler Bolken)

WILMINGTON, N.C., WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH -- The Marine Corps pilot who ejected from a Harrier jet before it crashed into the ocean off Wrightsville Beach Friday has been released from the hospital and is resting at home, military officials said Saturday.

The unidentified pilot had departed Wilmington International Airport in an AV-8B Harrier belonging to Marine Attack Squadron 542 for training exercises, II Marine Expeditionary Force spokeswoman 1st Lt. Maida Zheng said Friday. Around 5 p.m., he ejected from the aircraft for unknown reasons.

Zheng said Saturday afternoon that the cause of the crash is under investigation.

Jeremy Owens, captain of the Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue, was just a few minutes away from clocking out for the day when he got a call from dispatch of a downed aircraft near Mason's Inlet. He was on the beach within minutes.

Along with lifeguard Kyle Miess, the two stood on the shore near the Holiday Inn Sunspree and searched the water for signs of life among the wreckage.

"You could see pieces of the plane sticking out from the water and we could see an Osprey plane hovering over the water searching," Owens said. "That's how we could see where it was it."

Launching from the shore on a personal watercraft, the two men reached the site and first encountered pieces of debris and jet fuel littering the water.

Owens said they found the pilot roughly 600 feet from the primary crash site, floating and clutching a radio he was using to communicate with rescuers. Pulling up beside him, the pilot gave Owens and Miess a thumbs up that he was OK.

His only complaint: He was cold.

"When we got to him, his teeth were chattering and he was shivering," he said. "We called over to inform them that he was possibly hypothermic, so we wanted to get him out of the water quickly."

On Saturday, the National Weather Service said the water temperature at Wrightsville Beach was a seasonably average 67 degrees.

Owens said the pilot was fortunate that Friday's weather conditions -- calm seas, clear visibility, warm temperatures -- were ideal for a safe and swift rescue.

"We were just glad he was OK, considering the possible trauma you could have ejecting from a jet," Owen said.

The two men waited in the water with the pilot and offered to take him back to shore for medical assistance.

He was instead pulled from the water by a helicopter and airlifted to Cherry Point.

Zheng said the pilot inflated a personal flotation device that is worn in flight and was also able to inflate and board a life raft until he was picked up by a Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter that is based out of Naval Station Norfolk.

"We would like to extend our gratitude to local law enforcement and medical personnel, to include our U.S. Navy and Coast Guard counterparts for their swift action in rescuing and aiding our pilot," Zheng said in a statement released Satruday.

The Harrier was training with the USS Wasp in support of the Camp Lejeune-based 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The plane departed from Wilmington International Airport for flight training and was scheduled to return there later, Zheng said Friday.

The jet remains on the ocean floor and officials are working on plans to recover it, Zheng said.

On Saturday, Owens praised the quick response of all the agencies -- including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department -- that converged on the beach Friday to assist.

"Everyone was on there so quick, from the Coast Guard to the military," Owens said. "They all did an incredible job. We just happened to be the first ones to get to him."

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