CLEARFIELD, Utah (ABC4) – A pilot is now out of the hospital after crashing an F-35A Lightning II at Hill Air Force Base on Wednesday evening. While it was a surreal, and even terrifying night, for those in the surrounding communities, residents are expressing their gratitude for the outcome of the accident and calling the pilot a hero.   

“It is eerie,” Joy Petro stated. “I mean, there has not been any sound at all.” The long-familiar “sounds of freedom” are absent in northern Utah. “Sounds of freedom” is a term of endearment people surrounding the base use to describe the daily roar of jet engines as pilots train in F-35s above head.  

While the skies are eerily silent now, that wasn’t the case Wednesday.  

“And then I saw it just explode,” Mitt Nilson told ABC4. “I mean, pieces of the wings, the cockpit, the engine flying everywhere. He went about 30 feet and then glided away.”  

Mitt Nilson is 13 years old and lives in South Weber. On Wednesday evening, he was riding his dirt bike in a field his extended family owns. The field sits just yards away from the north runway at Hill Air Force Base.   

Growing up in the area, Nilson said he is used to the constant sound of jet engines. However, he said he was taking a break from riding when he heard a high-pitched sound coming from the sky. He believed it was the sound of the F-35 experiencing engine problems. The noise was strange enough to make him look up. “And I saw an F-35 with smoke pouring out of the back of it, going towards the running strip. And I saw someone parachute out of it, so I thought they were filming a movie.” 

Nilson said he knew it wasn’t a movie when flames seemed to leap hundreds of feet in the air. “I thought he was going to land in the trees and so my first thought was if the trees light on fire, I’m in this field that’s all dead, and so if it lights on fire, I’m pretty much done.” He said he started his bike and quickly returned home. Shaken, he told his mother about the explosion. She rushed outside to see the hillside on fire.  

Mitt’s mother told ABC4 that worst-case scenarios immediately began to run through her mind. She was cooking dinner at the time of the crash and said the boom caused the windows of the house to shake. However, at the time, she didn’t think anything of it since the aircraft often rumble with enough force to cause some shaking. She, and her neighbors, told ABC4 they are grateful the pilot was able to mitigate damage like he did. He crashed along the border of the base. The plane, debris or the fire could have caused much more damage. Damage to the neighborhood, or to the Nilson family.  

“Knowing that not one person was really injured and that there was very little damage done just speaks loud and volumes of the training that takes place off of this base,” Joy Petro told ABC4.  

Petro is the mayor of Layton City. She met ABC4 at the intersection of E. Antelope Dr. and N. Fort Lane. The land surrounding this intersection is farmland. She explained that in Layton, this area cannot be developed because it is in the flight path of the base. It is a safety precaution for such instances. Nonetheless, she told ABC4 that real safety is provided through the pilots’ skill set. “It is!” she exclaimed. “It’s definitely heroic.” 

“It’s not something we hope to have happen,” 388th Fighter Wing Commander Colonel Craig Andrle told reporters during a press conference Thursday afternoon. “We do train for it. It’s a reoccurring training for all our pilots on an ejection situation for all our pilots.” Colonel Craig said flying these aircraft is risky business and all pilots know about the risk. However, he said all pilots are trained to do what they can in an emergency to get their plane away from populated areas. He told reporters the last time the air force had a crash in Utah was back in 2019. This crash is the first involving an F-35. 

Hopefully, there won’t be another crash anytime soon. Mitt Nilson added: “It was pretty scary, but I think I’m good.” 

As the investigation into the cause of the crash continues, Hill Air Force Base is asking for the public’s help. The base released the following message: “If you were an eyewitness to the F-35 accident on (Oct. 19) or have found anything that may be related to this incident, please call 801-777-0911 or email 75abw.pa@us.af.mil. Please provide your full name, address, and a phone number where you can be reached, along with the associated details of what you witnessed or have found. A member of the Air Force will return your call. Providing your information is voluntary and will not be disclosed outside of official channels.”