Pilot recounts jet's crash Details: Maj. Bryan Knight's routine fly-by at a Middle River air show turned frightening as his fighter began to vibrate and lose air speed.

October 04, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Floating beneath his parachute, Air Force Maj. Bryan Knight had a bird's-eye view of a chilling sight.

"I knew that I was over a neighborhood. That scared me," Knight said yesterday, speaking publicly for the first time since his stealth fighter jet crashed last month in eastern Baltimore County. "I watched the airplane all the way down, and I saw it impact in the front yard.

"I heard the explosion. I'm watching the fire, and the fire's getting bigger and bigger and the house is starting to burn, and that's when I started to worry."

Meeting with reporters yesterday near the Bowleys Quarters neighborhood, the 36-year-old pilot was a picture of military bearing. Knight, the son of an Air Force pilot, looked neat and trim in his flight suit.

He thanked and praised Bowleys Quarters' residents and its volunteer fire company for their aid after the air show crash Sept. 14. He described his efforts to stay in the crippled plane as long as possible and steer it toward water, but rejected any notion that he was a hero.

Knight said he'd been thrilled to return to the skies this week and was confident investigators would discover the reasons behind the crash. Amid reports that an improperly installed part caused the F-117A Nighthawk to crash, he said he stands behind Air Force maintenance workers.

"I've got 100 percent confidence in them," he said. "I want to fly their airplanes -- today."

Air Force officials say their investigation into the crash is continuing, but they have lifted a nationwide halt to F-117A flights. Yesterday, a state Department of the Environment official was assessing the crash site to determine how much fuel-contaminated soil will have to be removed.

Knight, a pilot with nearly 3,000 hours of flight time, had performed at an air show in Syracuse, N.Y., earlier on the day of the crash. He then flew to Maryland's Martin State Airport for what was to have been a routine air show fly-by, a welcome chance to show off one of the military's most fascinating weapons.

But as Knight began to pull his plane into a climb, he suddenly had the first clue that something was about to go terribly wrong.

"I felt a very rapid but intense vibration," Knight recalled. After his head was momentarily pinned down by the G-force created by the crippled plane's jerks and pitches, he sat up and took stock.

"I knew, obviously, that there was a serious problem, and the thing that occurred to me first was 'I am not moving forward. I have no air speed,' " the pilot said. "I realized this airplane is probably not going to be able to be flown, and I thought getting it to the water would be the best place. But, again, it did not respond."

Within seconds -- 16 of them, Knight said -- he made the decision to pull the two levers that would eject him from the plane.

"The word that describes pulling the handles is 'dread,' " he said.

But as he saw the plane crash in a front yard, and not on a house, he felt hope.

"I thought, 'Maybe -- just maybe -- no one's going to get hurt out of this,' " he said. He was further relieved when a woman who came to his aid said no one had been in the house nearest the burning plane.

He praised the woman, Diann Stumpf, for her courage.

"This is a lady who -- no kidding -- ran toward the fire to get to me," he said. "Everybody wanted to know how I was, and there was a fire going on. I think that's testament to the kind of people that are in the neighborhood."

Neither Knight nor anyone in the area was seriously injured in the crash. Knight had moments of self-doubt over the next few days, he said yesterday, but added, "If I did something wrong, I don't know what it was."

Despite the crash, he is eager to resume flying. He said he felt "no trepidation whatsoever" before flying a T-38 jet Wednesday at an Air Force base in New Mexico.

And although the crash of his $43 million jet spurred a debate over whether the stealth fighter should be flown in air shows, TC Knight said the shows should go on. He said he would return to the Middle River air show if invited next year.

"I like that people who are paying their taxes to support the military know exactly where their money's going, and what we do," he said yesterday. "After all, this is your airplane, this is your military, this is your Air Force."

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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