UPDATE: Beale: 1 pilot dead, another injured after U-2 crashes into Sutter Buttes
Special to The Union
One pilot was killed and another injured when a U-2 Dragon Lady trainer crashed for unknown reasons near the Sutter Buttes shortly after takeoff Tuesday morning.
The two pilots took off on a routine training mission in a two-seat training version of the U-2 about 15 minutes before ejecting over the Sutter Buttes at 9:05 a.m., officials from Beale Air Force Base said.
A 250-acre wildlands fire started when the U-2 slammed into a hill. Most of the aircraft was destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire.
The pilots ejected well before the plane hit the ground and landed in a difficult-to-access section of the Buttes north of Pass Road.
The cause of the crash is under investigation and, the Air Force was not releasing the identities of the pilots until families were notified, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Commander Col. Larry Broadwell said.
The aircraft were assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale, which is in charge of training U-2 pilots.
The two-seat U-2s are used for training and interview purposes for new Dragon Lady pilots, so one pilot is an instructor and the other is a trainee. Broadwell said he was not ready to say if it was the instructor or trainee who was killed.
U-2s are considered one of the most difficult airplanes to fly due to their unique bicycle-style landing gear and glider-like characteristics, however, all U-2 pilots go through a rigorous interview process and must have significant experience flying other airframes.
It has been more than a decade since the last fatality in a U-2 and more than 20 years since a U-2 flown from Beale was involved in a fatal crash.
“I would match the safety and maintenance record of the U-2 with any of the apparatus the Air Force flies,” Broadwell said.
Broadwell said it is an extremely emotional time for Beale personnel and they are focused on responding to the incident. The crash will not stop the Dragon Lady from flying over Yuba-Sutter, he said.
“The spirit of the U-2 is strong, and we will fly sooner rather than later,” Broadwell said.
It is not clear what caused the crash, or what killed one pilot and injured the other, but a thorough investigation is underway, Broadwell said.
Michael Berry, who works for the Sutter County Agriculture Department, witnessed the start of the incident while getting ready at a work site with three other people.
“We heard a loud boom and saw a white puff of smoke. We saw the pilots eject, and it looked like two parachutes came out,” Berry said.
As of 12:40 p.m., the fire had burned 250 acres and was contained by mid-afternoon, Sutter County Fire Chief John Shalowitz said. No structures were threatened and 20 fire engines, one air tanker, one air attack and one helicopter responded to fight the fire.
Barron is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Reporter Chris Kaufman contributed to this story.
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