Navy Super Hornet Pilot Died in Crash at 'Star Wars Canyon,' Officials Confirm

An F/A-18E Super Hornet touches down during past field carrier-landing practice on Iwo Jima, an island known in Japan as Iwo To. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
An F/A-18E Super Hornet touches down during past field carrier-landing practice on Iwo Jima, an island known in Japan as Iwo To. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Navy officials have determined that the F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot involved in a Wednesday crash in a narrow California canyon is dead.

The pilot is determined to have died in the crash, Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Bock, a spokeswoman for Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, said in a statement. The aviator's identity is being withheld for 24 hours, per Defense Department policy.

"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.

The pilot was assigned to the "Vigilantes" of Strike Fighter Squadron 151 based out of Naval Air Station Lemoore.

The crash, which left several nearby tourists injured and remains under investigation, occurred around 10 a.m. in Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley National Park about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A search-and-rescue unit from the nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake had been dispatched to find the pilot, Bock told Military.com on Wednesday.

The plane was one of two conducting training flights in the area. Witnesses told the Associated Press they were taking pictures of the canyon when a jet screamed into view and suddenly slammed into the canyon wall.

Data from the Naval Safety Center said the aircraft "impacted the canyon wall during low-altitude training." The Center reported the pilot missing and seven civilians injured.

French tourists standing on an overlook to view the canyon suffered cuts and burns when they were hit with debris from the crash, KABC Channel 7 reported. One of the injured had burn injuries on her back and was taken to a Los Angeles-area hospital for treatment, according to the station.

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The canyon, which is also known as "Star Wars Canyon," is a popular spot for tourists taking in the national park's scenery and for aviation enthusiasts trying to get a close-up look at military flights. Pilots routinely conduct low-altitude training flights there. It gets its nickname comes from its likeness to some of the scenes on Luke Skywalker's desert home planet of Tatooine in the "Star Wars" movies.

Capt. James Bates, Strike Fighter Wing Pacific's commander, said during a Wednesday press conference the other Super Hornet pilot in the air at the time returned to base as search-and-rescue efforts kicked off to find the second.

"It's mountainous, rugged, remote -- so it's going to be challenging," he said. "We've got crews that are going to stay out there through the night."

Bates on Wednesday thanked the local community for their support. The military trains as it fights, he added, which can mean making dangerous maneuvers.

"We train to the highest of standards in order to achieve perfection in combat, so we sustain that standard in training," Bates said. "Lemoore is a very unique community -- we're a very tight-knit community."

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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