An F/A-18C Hornet fighter jet returns to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier after a mission over Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy)

A Marine F/A-18C Hornet crashed during a training exercise in the Mojave desert Thursday night, killing the pilot, the Marine Corps announced Friday.

The crash occurred around 10:30 p.m. near Twentynine Palms, Calif., according to a Marine Corps release. The cause of the crash is under investigation and the pilot’s name will not be released until the next of kin are notified.

According to a Marine who witnessed the crash, the F/A-18 was in a dive preparing to drop ordnance on a simulated target when the aircraft broke apart in midair and erupted into a fireball. The base’s civilian air rescue immediately responded to the crash site — a strip of canyon roughly 10 miles south of I-40 called Gay’s Pass, said the Marine, who requested anonymity because of his active duty status.

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Dent said in an email that contrary to the eyewitness account provided in this article, there are “no initial indications that the aircraft…broke apart.”

“It was providing close air support during a training mission and was firing its cannon prior to the crash,” Dent said. “The cause of the mishap is under investigation, but we have no evidence yet to support the premise that the aircraft was coming apart.”

The aircraft, from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Miramar, Calif., was supporting a Marine infantry company participating in a training segment called the Air Assault Course.  The roughly 36-hour course involves a Marine unit helicoptering into a simulated objective, where the Marines are then tasked to defend it. The Air Assault Course is a component of a larger training evolution that takes place over the course of a month at Twentynine Palms, said the Marine, who was participating in the exercise and watched the aircraft explode.

The Marine said that prior to the crash, artillery and mortars had been firing in the area but had stopped before the aircraft’s attack run. Complex training exercises that involve multiple components such as surface fire and air support go through a rigorous process known as deconfliction to ensure that aircraft are not hit by ground fire such as artillery rounds.

The F/A-18C is a single-seat variant of the F/A-18, a twin-engine multi-role fighter that first flew in the late 1970s and saw its first extensive combat action in the Gulf War. The Marine Corps has flown its jets — primarily its older Hornet types — ragged over the course of the United States’ protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The high operation tempo and budget cuts have left much of the branches’ fleet of aircraft grounded and flying time for Marine pilots in high demand.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation, told a Senate committee in April that his branch is facing a severe shortage of aircraft needed to support both operations and training. The imbalance has forced a problematic training regime that gives pilots long stretches of minimal training time until just before they deploy.

In October, a Marine F/A-18C from the 3rd Aircraft Wing crashed in England during a training flight , killing its pilot, Maj. Taj Sareen.

This post has been updated to reflect comments about the crash provided by the Marine Corps.

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