Patrick Dodson had just stepped out to his front porch Wednesday morning in Clinton, Md., when a noise made him glance up. Planes were nothing new in his neighborhood, with a private airfield a mile away and Joint Base Andrews just north. He’d often wondered what he’d do if he saw one go down.
“I’d never in my life thought that I would run toward a falling jet,” said Dodson, 38. “That’s something that heroes do. That’s not me; I’m just a single father of two kids.”
An F-16 that had taken off from Andrews a few minutes earlier was headed with three other aircraft to Pennsylvania for a surface attack training mission. It had mechanical problems within minutes.
The pilot, whom military officials would not identify, had only seconds to find a safe place to drop tanks containing more than a ton of jet fuel, ideally in the glistening strip of the Potomac River a few miles to the south. He then had even fewer seconds to steer the crippled $20 million fighter past the houses below and, hopefully, bail out before it was too late.
The pilot safely ditched the tanks, which military patrols would later recover. The plane plunged into woods flanked by suburban cul-de-sacs. The crash was close enough to spray debris and set small brush fires in the surrounding neighborhood but, remarkably, caused no serious injuries or damage, local and military officials said.
Dodson’s house on Maui Street gave him a chilling view of the unfolding crisis. The electrician looked up to see a fighter jet struggling to stay aloft, plumes of black smoke pouring from it.
Suddenly, a human shape shot up and away, sprawling in the sky; then another blob flashed up and spread into a parachute, jerking the human figure upward.
He watched the pilot hang, drifting, as the plane nose-dived, streaking toward the house where he, his mother, sister and 4-year-old nephew were having a quiet morning.
“Get . . . out of the house,” he screamed to them as he began to run. He dialed 911 on the phone that he had just used to text a friend. “A plane is crashing,” he said. As he yelled the address, he realized he didn’t know if the plane was “one of ours or another 9/11 attack.” The jet was almost down, roaring in with a whoop, whoop, whoop. He threw his phone down as the plane streaked past the roofs on Wood Elves Way.
A fireball rose in the air. The blast knocked Dodson off his feet, he said. He jumped up and kept running, only to feel sharp stings in his arm and hand. He pulled a small piece of metal from his thumb, so hot he dropped it immediately.
He could hear the whizzing of what sounded like bullets all around him, and he ducked momentarily around the corner of a house, wondering if a jet-load of ammunition was about to explode. Later, homeowners would report hearing the “pop” of exploding rounds for at least 10 minutes after the crash.
“I just tried to keep my eye on the pilot,” Dodson said. “I was worried that he was heading into the woods.”
Dodson knew his family was safe, as the explosion was about 200 yards from his house. His two kids were in school. He’s a single dad of a 7- and a 9-year-old, and he had been heading to a parent-teacher conference when he had walked out of the house two minutes — and what seemed like a lifetime — ago.
So he started running again. Whoever that pilot was, he wanted to help him.
“I could hear [the shrapnel] hitting the trees all around me,” he said.
It had been years since he ran full out, and it was hard to find the breath every few minutes to shout: “Pilot! Pilot! Can you hear me?” He tried to look up when he could, dodging low branches and forest debris, hoping not to see the flier dangling injured from a treetop. “Pilot! Pilot!”
He reckons it was about 12 minutes after he left his porch that he heard a police helicopter setting down in a field. He ran out from the trees, skirting the spinning rotor, and saw a figure about 30 yards ahead trying to untangle himself from parachute cords.
“Honestly, I was about to collapse,” Dodson said a couple of hours later, his voice still full of edge, the blood from his minor wounds still dry on his arm. “I’ve never run that hard in my life.”
He gave the pilot a tentative little salute as he approached, still unsure if he was friend or foe.
“Are you okay?” Dodson said.
“Yes,” the pilot answered. “Is everyone okay? I tried to stay away from the neighborhood.”
“I think you did. I think it hit the woods,” Dodson said. “Were you carrying live ammo?”
Dodson said the pilot hesitated, then nodded. “Yes,” he said.
A second helicopter landed, this one from the military.
The fighter pilot shook Dodson’s hand and said, “Thank you,” and began talking on a handheld radio.
“It was all in code; I don’t know what they were saying,” Dodson said. “I just turned around and ran back out of there.”
When he emerged from the woods, he found a neighborhood in relieved chaos. The plane had hit in the 2700 block of Wood Elves Way. Prince George’s County Fire Department officials were evacuating residents of about 20 nearby homes to an elementary school, where families stayed until the all-clear was blown about two hours later. Firefighters put out the small brush fires that burning debris had started.
“They did find parts of the plane that were burning in the wooded areas behind the home that were on fire,” said Ben Barksdale, Prince George’s interim fire chief.
Residents and officials alike marveled at the close call.
“Word is he’s in good spirits,” D.C. Air National Guard Gen. George Degnon said of the jet pilot.
Degnon said the aircraft was armed only with training rounds packed with small amounts of gunpowder, which possibly accounted for the metal that hit Dodson and the pops heard by neighbors.
“They’re not high-explosive rounds,” he said. “They’re basically a piece of metal that flies through the air that aids in target practice.”
Dodson spent the day pondering events that he said were far more dramatic than any action movie. He grew emotional recalling the determination he’d felt, his surprise at running toward the danger, not away. For a tradesman who recently had to move back in with his mother because of hard times, it felt good to feel strong.
He only had one request after his brush with disaster.
“I’d like to meet that pilot,” he said.
Jennifer Jenkins, Lori Aratani, Dana Hedgpeth and Mandy McLaren contributed to this report.