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MONCKS CORNER, S.C. – Federal investigators and local authorities have been combing through a wide swath of rural, sparsely populated land as they try to determine what caused an F-16 fighter jet to slam into a small plane over South Carolina, killing the plane's pilot and passenger.
Debris from the collision, which happened near Moncks Corner, was scattered over a broad area about 20 miles northwest of Charleston, but there were no reports of any residents hurt or homes damaged, Berkeley County spokesman Michael Mule said.
An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was joining the investigation and the NTSB planned to hold a news conference Wednesday to announce its initial findings, spokesman Peter Knudson said.
Two people aboard the Cessna 150 were killed and the plane was completely destroyed. County Coroner Bill Salisbury planned to announce the names of the victims on Wednesday, government officials tweeted late Tuesday.
The jet's pilot, Maj. Aaron Johnson from the 55th Fighter Squadron, ejected from his aircraft safely and was taken to Joint Base Charleston's medical clinic for observation, officials from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter said in a news release.
The jet crashed into woods around the privately owned Lewisfield Plantation, an estate dating to 1750.
"We heard the plane crash," said Leo Ramsey, who has worked at the plantation for about 30 years. "And then we took off from where I was at, I guess I was about a half-mile from it, when we saw a cloud of smoke."
Ramsey and two other workers found burning metal, splintered trees and a flaming crater where the jet had crash-landed, he said.
Col. Stephen Jost, commander of the 20th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, said Maj. Johnson parachuted to the ground and was taken by plantation workers to Berkeley County EMS personnel, who then took him to the Charleston base.
Johnson was flying solo, practicing instrument approaches to a military base and was communicating with Charleston air traffic controllers, military officials said.
Jost said he thought it was overcast at the time of the collision, but he was not aware of any weather-related problems.
It wasn't clear if a flight plan had been filed, but Berkeley County officials say the civilian pilot had indicated he was traveling to Myrtle Beach.
Wayne Ware told The Post and Courier of Charleston he was going for a walk when he heard the crash happen. He did not see the initial impact, but heard it.
"I turned around, and I saw the jet. Pieces started falling out of the sky," Ware said, telling the paper the jet's engine landed at a campground.
The Air Force has flown F-16s since the 1970s, though very few active-duty squadrons still fly them. F-16s from Shaw Air Force Base, about 35 miles east of Columbia, routinely fly training missions over eastern South Carolina and the Atlantic.
The Cessna 150 is a two-seat plane that debuted in 1959 and remains one of the most common single-engine planes in the U.S. The Cessna's maximum altitude is about 15,000 feet, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Most models weigh about 1,500 pounds when fully fueled.
By comparison, an F-16 is about 50 feet long and weighs nearly 10 tons, not counting fuel or weapons. Jost said the F-16 was not carrying any live munitions at the time of the collision.