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.
“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.
The couple from the Bay Area were found by CHP officers on a rural Kings County road late Wednesday night. As officers approached their parked Jeep Cherokee on Jackson Avenue, the couple – Anthony Raymond Castillo, 29, of Campbell and passenger Melissa Marie Miller, 36, of San Jose – took off toward the air base.
As they entered the base, they turned off the SUV’s headlights and were able to evade security personnel. They drove seven miles to the airfield, where they crashed into the $30 million aircraft.
The SUV hit the horizontal stabilizer at the rear of the FA-18E fighter jet, authorities said. Miller was pronounced dead at the scene. Castillo was rescued and flown to Community Regional Medical Center, where he later died.
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 Tulare Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, Friday cited the “alarming security breach.”
“Although at this time there are no indications of any links to terrorism, the incident involved an alarming security breach at Lemoore,” he said while he is traveling overseas. “Base officials need to immediately review their security procedures and rectify any weaknesses that allowed this car to penetrate the base’s perimeter.”
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.