Published August 30, 2011
| Associated Press
VILNIUS, Lithuania – Two Lithuanian air force pilots ejected and sent their aircraft crashing into a swamp following a midair collision with a French fighter jet during a NATO training flight Tuesday.
No serious injuries were reported in the accident near the Zokniai air base in northern Lithuania, home to NATO jets patrolling the skies over the Baltic countries.
The French Mirage fighter was only "lightly damaged" and landed safely at the air base, while the Lithuanian pilots successfully ejected from their L-39 Albatros jet after the collision at 10:30 a.m. local time, NATO officials said.
"The two Lithuanian pilots walked away from the crash without serious injury and are currently under medical supervision," the military alliance said in a statement.
The pilots catapulted themselves out of the L-39 combat training aircraft after aiming it toward an unpopulated area to avoid causalities on the ground, Lithuanian defense chief Arvydas Pocius told reporters in the capital, Vilnius. They returned to service after medical checks, he said.
The plane crashed in a forested swampland near Rekyva lake, which is about 3 miles from the air base, Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene told the Baltic News Service. There were no reports of injuries on the ground.
Aerial photographs of the crash site released by Lithuania's Defense Ministry showed what appeared to be parts of the wreckage scattered around a crater surrounded by trees.
A panel was set up to investigate the cause of the collision, which occurred during a routine training flight, Pocius said. "All questions will be answered after we recover the crashed plane's black box," he added.
France has fighter jets based at Zokniai, 135 miles northwest of Vilnius, as part of NATO's air policing mission in the region.
In rotating missions introduced after Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined the alliance in 2004, larger NATO countries take turns policing the skies over the Baltic countries, who all border Russia, because they don't have any significant air defense resources of their own. NATO said it was the first crash involving a NATO aircraft since the Baltic operation began.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the accident happened during a flight involving two Mirage 2000C jets and the Lithuanian aircraft.
"During the patrol, there was a collision between two aircraft -- one French and the Lithuanian -- and this led to the ejection of the two Lithuanian pilots, and the two French planes landed," he said, adding that the French pilots were "safe and sound."
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius promised a full investigation into the accident.
"I am very sorry about this accident, we do not know the circumstances yet, but it is a great relief to know that there we no human casualties," Kubilius said.
Burkhard said it wouldn't change anything in France's role in the NATO operation, carried out from a base near the northern town of Siauliai. Several such training flights occur each week, he said.