Capt. Jonathan “Holster” Morgan was on a routine training mission slicing through clear blue sky over Washington.
He had lifted off from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at 9:13 a.m. on a spring day in 2017, heading to a Pennsylvania shooting range with three other F-16s to practice bombing runs.
Less than a minute into the air, his jet accelerated faster than he had ever felt. Warning lights flashed in the cockpit.
“Lead,” Morgan radioed to his commander, “my engine’s giving out.”
Without power, his beloved F-16 had turned into a $22 million glider, and at its controls, he was hurtling like a driver with no brakes.
Morgan had to maneuver 38,000 pounds of metal and fuel away from the nation’s capital.
Aiming for a shimmering swath of the Potomac River thousands of feet below, Morgan dumped his external fuel tanks with a resounding clunk, shedding two tons of weight in the hope a lighter load would save enough momentum to let him coast home.
One tank landed between two houses; the other in woods.
Morgan turned the jet, planning to limp back to base. But, seconds later, one of his wingmen radioed.
“You’ve got a fire.” Flames 30 feet long shot from the back of Morgan’s aircraft.
Morgan cut the throttle, extinguishing the blaze.
“My engine’s off. I’m at 180 knots and 4,800 feet,” Morgan radioed as he asked about his chances of returning to Andrews. “Do you think I can make it?”
The other pilot didn’t hesitate.
As an F-16 pilot for the D.C. Air National Guard, Morgan and his fellow guardsmen spend their days protecting the airspace over Washington.
The 113th Wing scrambled the first jets that responded to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Since then, two F-16 pilots sit on alert 24 hours a day every day to intercept threats at a moment’s notice.
When they’re not actively on call to defend the skies, they train for possible combat and ready themselves to tackle emergencies, just like those Morgan faced one morning.
The image of his downed jet made news that day.
The saga of how it happened, from its pilot and his commanders, went largely untold.
Morgan fell in love with fighter jets going to air shows along the East Coast as a child. His father, obsessed with military aviation, took Morgan and his six siblings to see the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds tear across the horizon.
“Everything stood still when the Thunderbirds were in flight,” said Morgan, 32, who has a picture of himself at age 2, rosy-cheeked and in a red hoodie, standing in front of F-16s at a show. “It still gets me to this day when they fly by roaring behind and try to give you a scare.”
As he got older, Morgan got a job as a finance analyst for Bayer HealthCare. During the week, he’d crunch numbers needed to bolster sales.
Unable to shake his love of flying, he spent weekends in the air.
He earned his private pilot’s license. Then, he quit his job.
“It was that burning desire to pursue my childhood dream,” Morgan said. “I wanted to pursue my passion.”
Morgan didn’t want to fly just any military aircraft. He wanted to be in an F-16 like the ones that awed him at air shows as a boy.
He applied to various National Guard units that rely on the jets he fancied before he snagged a coveted slot in 2012 in the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. He studied and trained at academies and air bases in Texas and New Mexico before returning to Joint Base Andrews two years ago, finally able to live out his dream.
Morgan knew the work could be dangerous. But he didn’t picture piloting a jet that would plow into the ground.
Morgan wasn’t supposed to be flying fighter No. 306.
During the morning briefing on April 5, 2017, one of the maintenance officers flagged a new software upgrade for the jet Morgan originally had been assigned. That aircraft was capable of being flown, but the flight lead didn’t want Morgan, the youngest and least experienced of the crew, to take it in case a problem arose.
“Ironically . . . I swapped with Morgan,” said Lt. Col. Chad “Bubba” Lewis, who, over 20 years, had logged more than 3,000 flight hours compared with Morgan’s 240. “Little did I know,” he said, that the subbed jet for Morgan “was going to be the mishap aircraft.”
The departure that morning was trickier than usual, a path Morgan had flown only once or twice before and requires a near immediate left turn after takeoff to avoid restricted airspace over downtown Washington and then a sharp climb to avoid air traffic for Reagan National Airport.
As the four jets in formation that day approached the airport, Morgan reported an engine problem.
“As soon as I start troubleshooting that issue, my jet single engine quits on me and so at that point I’m just over the Potomac River” on the west side, Morgan said.
An emergency landing at National was not an option. The runways at the airport are too short to safely stop an F-16.
“I make an immediate left-hand turn to get back to Andrews Air Force Base,” he said.
Lewis radioed air traffic control with instructions: Get commercial flights out of the way and clear a path home for Morgan.
Then, the wingman saw the flames.
“I had uncontrollable acceleration, my engine gave out on me and I have a fire,” Morgan recalled, ticking off the list he had to work through in a matter of seconds.
Morgan aimed for the river to dump the fuel tanks, but they landed between homes and in a wooded area about a mile and a half south of Maryland’s National Harbor. He cut the engine to put out the fire.
And then he realized he could not make it to the base.
Scanning the world below he spotted an open field. He pointed the jet toward the grassy plot.
“I’m not going to make it,” Morgan radioed.
He had been in the air only three minutes since his departure from Andrews. “I’m at 2,000 feet. I’m punching.”
As he prepared to rocket himself out of the cockpit at twice the force astronauts experience being launched into space, Morgan thought of his family and wife.
“I love you, Katie,” he recorded into his radio.
Morgan gripped the yellow ejection lever between his knees and pulled.
Lewis, from his cockpit, watched as Morgan’s plane began to disassemble “like a Transformer in flight.”
“You see rockets firing, you see the ejection seat go, you see the canopy flying off and all of these parts and pieces of his airplane are falling to the ground,” said Lewis, who remembered scanning power lines, homes, National Harbor’s Ferris wheel and four commercial airplanes below as chunks of Morgan’s jet rained down. “I think, ‘Holy cow, something is going to get hit on the ground.’ ”
Staff at Joint Base Andrews went on high alert.
“We have a confirmed F-16 crash,” the radio to the helicopter unit crackled at 9:20 a.m. “Remain in place and await orders.”
Six miles from base, Morgan’s jet nose-dived, hitting the ground 10 seconds after he had ejected. A massive fireball billowed up, alarming people who saw the streaking jet and heard the booming crash.
Residents on Woodelves Way in Clinton, Md., fled their homes. Flames and smoke rose through the treetops and jet fuel seeped into the ground.
The crash blew out a 25-foot crater and sprayed metal and jet rubble nearly the length of two football fields.
Less than a second later, a bright orange parachute swelled above Morgan. He touched down in golden grass, where five people on the ground who had watched the hobbled F-16 rushed to his aid.
The 121st Fighter Squadron pilot dusted himself off, detached his parachute and took off his flight gear.
Morgan radioed his three flight mates.
Six months after the crash, an Air Force crash investigation revealed why Morgan’s Fighting Falcon failed moments after takeoff: a ring, no wider than a quarter, and a small pin were missing from the main engine control. The faulty assembly sent fuel gushing to the engine, causing it to speed up uncontrollably before overheating and bursting into flames.
“With our training, it’s like you know certain things like the back of your hand, so instinct just kicks in,” Morgan said of the chain of catastrophe. He credited his experienced flight mates that day with helping work through the crisis.
Once a month, the National Guard pilots go through emergency simulations. Many jokingly call the training “can’t start, can’t take off, can’t fly, can’t land, can’t do anything right” training because each time a pilot successfully overcomes one emergency, another quickly follows, said retired Brig. Gen. Jeffrey C. Bozard, former commander of the 113th Wing.
“You can imagine if you’re flying a single-engine fighter over one of the most congested areas in the world, it would be very nice if we did everything right every time,” Bozard said.
In Morgan’s flight, Bozard said, “the engine was never going to restart again, and so it was up to him now to run through his own personal procedures to make sure that he gets out safely and jettisons in a place that doesn’t endanger anybody and their home.”
Morgan has received multiple commendations for his actions that morning that left no one injured.
“He took three different emergencies that day and made some pretty fantastic decisions in real time,” Bozard said.
About an hour after the crash, Lewis reunited with Morgan, who had been transported by helicopter to a hospital, checked over by a medic and returned to base.
Lewis remembers his relief at seeing Morgan, still in his flight suit, flashing a big smile.
“How you feeling? Are you okay?” Lewis asked.
“Yeah,” Morgan said. “I’m ready to go fly again.”