A Navy S-3B Viking jet crashed and burned in woods about one-half mile west of Naval Air Station Jacksonville Wednesday, killing two naval aviators.
The jet went down in the woods near the 6500 block of Roosevelt Boulevard just before noon.
"There was a large flash, like lightning, only brighter. Then we heard a big 'kaboom,'" witness Donna Wells told Channel 4 in a special report just before 1 p.m. "Just a few minutes later, a big cloud of black smoke came up over the trees."
Fire officials said they initially responded to reports of a woods fire, finding Navy firefighters already trying to extinguish the burning wreckage and surrounding area. Once the fire was out, the scene was secured by military officials.
The Navy told the local station that the plane is from Sea Control Squadron 32 -- "The Maulers" --and crashed on approach to NAS Jacksonville. Witnesses reported seeing two parachutes before the crash and a search began for the pilot and co-pilot.
After confirming both died, officials would not say if they were found in the wreckage or nearby. According to Navy policy, their names will not be released until 24 hours after families are notified.
Channel 4 reporters at the scene and said there were numerous fire trucks and military police in the area, but the wreckage is in a wooded next to Westside Regional Park and couldn't been seen.
Ortega resident Eric Cook said he saw the plane flying very low, with the engine running rough. He said the jet turned around to return to NAS, but was already trailing black smoke.
The S-3B is an all-weather, carrier-based jet aircraft, used for many missions, including surveillance, electronic countermeasures, warfare, and search and rescue. In normal missions, S-3Bs carry a crew of four -- pilot, co-pilot, navigator and an enlisted crewmember. For practice, they often fly with only a pilot and co-pilot.
This is the same type of jet that shuttled President George W. Bush to the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego in 2003 to announce the end of major combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
All three of the Navy's East Coast squadrons of Vikings are based at NAS Jacksonville.