The commander of Lemoore Naval Air Station said Thursday “many investigations” will follow a fatal overnight incident in which an SUV breached security and crashed into an FA-18E warplane on the base. The two occupants of the Jeep Cherokee, a male driver and a female passenger, died in the crash.
Lemoore NAS’s commander, Capt. Monte G. Ashliman Jr., said the pair did not have any military affiliation, and that there was no reason to believe the base was the target of a terrorist attack. But in a news conference, Ashliman did not provide specifics about how the Cherokee was able to get past a “control point” and damage the multimillion-dollar jet.
The Bee asked Lemoore officials to explain how the breach occurred, how security officers became aware of it and how they responded, and whether entry points need to be modified to prevent such occurrences. Officials declined to answer, saying those questions will be handled in the follow-up investigations.
Just how the vehicle got to where hangars are located and jet fighters take off and land is what has to be understood. “Obviously, that is not something we desire to happen on board the installation,” said Ashliman.
The base has a heavily fortified main gate with steel barriers that must be lowered before vehicles can enter. The gate is guarded by military police armed with assault rifles.
Officials indicated the Jeep did not enter through that point, but instead took a different road to reach the jet, which Ashliman said was near a runway at the north end of the station, about 7 miles from the main entrance. One FA-18E is worth nearly $30 million.
“Whether it’s our fault or someone else’s fault … a tragedy happened that shouldn’t happen, and we’ve all got to take a look and see where we can get better so that it doesn’t happen again,” Ashliman said.
The investigations will also determine whether any staff will face repercussions, said Marcelo Calero, the base spokesman.
“We take security seriously,” he said. “It’s an everyday concern. It’s 24/7.”
The incident began at 11:38 p.m. Wednesday and ended at 12:02 a.m. Thursday when the vehicle crashed, the CHP said.
CHP officers saw a car on the side of Jackson Avenue near Highway 41 in Kings County and stopped to investigate. The driver sped away from officers, heading the wrong way on Highway 198.
“We don’t know why they were running,” Lt. Dave Knoff, commander of the CHP’s Hanford station, said at the news conference.
The driver went west on Jackson until he drove the wrong way on the freeway exit and onto eastbound lanes of Highway 198.
He drove across the dirt median to the westbound lanes and went about a mile to the main entrance of the base. But instead of heading toward the gate, the driver turned left and began down Reeves Boulevard, which is open to the public and is mainly used by base personnel to reach the main operations area of the base.
He had turned off his headlights, the CHP said.
The driver proceeded down Reeves to a checkpoint at the main flight operations area.
What happened at the checkpoint was unclear, but the driver got past it and drove across an open field and onto the flightline.
The SUV hit the horizontal stabilizer at the rear of the FA-18E fighter jet, authorities said. The driver was taken to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, where he died. The passenger died at the scene. Their identities were not released by authorities pending notification of relatives.
A spokeswoman for Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said the congressman was collecting information about the incident. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, was unavailable for comment. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, was traveling abroad but hoped to be briefed by staff about the incident.
Lemoore is the largest naval installation in the country for carrier-based aircraft and soon will be getting larger. Currently, 15 active FA-18 fighter jet squadrons and one auxiliary squadron are stationed there. One more is on its way in August, and another will move to Lemoore in 2018. A year from now the station also will get some of the first crews to fly the F-35, the country’s newest fighter jet. In all, more than 3,000 people – naval aviators and their family members – will be added to the base before 2019.
About 60 percent of the nation’s naval fighter jets will be based at Lemoore Naval Air Station. The Pacific Strike Fighter Wing, as it’s called, is growing due to the Department of Defense’s plans to divert 60 percent of all spending to the Pacific theater.