LAS VEGAS (NewsNation Now) — Military and federal authorities said Tuesday they were probing the cause of a fighter jet crash that killed a civilian pilot but did not injure anyone on the ground in a residential area near Nellis Air Force Base.
The Dassault Mirage F-1 that crashed Monday afternoon was owned and operated by Florida-based Draken US, a military contractor providing “adversary air support” during aerial war games flown from Nellis into restricted air space over central Nevada, a statement from the base said.
The pilot was Nicholas Hunter Hamilton, 43, of Las Vegas, the Clark County coroner said. He was the only person aboard the French aircraft, which records show was built in 1982.
In Reno, where he grew up, Hamilton’s family released a statement calling him Nick and describing him as “a devoted, kind husband, father, son and brother” who held a black belt in taekwondo and was an accomplished violinist.
“His death has left a large void in our lives, and we are all shocked and heartbroken,” Aaron Damon, a family spokesman, said in the statement to the Reno Gazette Journal.
Damon did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press.
Hamilton graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2000 and was a fighter pilot for 20 years, including multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, the newspaper said. He retired from the Air Force in March 2020 to fly for Draken International.
“His dedication to his family and his country will never be forgotten,” said the statement on behalf of his wife, their two young sons and other family members.
“Words cannot express our loss,” it said. “A nickel on the grass. We need time to mourn this great loss and appreciate the respect given to our privacy in this tragic time.”
In Las Vegas, homeowner Jose Villanueva told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he escaped injury when the jet slammed into his yard and his uncle’s adjacent yard. Attempts by AP to reach Villanueva by telephone were not successful.
“It was a really, really, really, really strong noise,” he told the newspaper.
The aircraft crashed in a neighborhood close to a park and an elementary school and neighbors are now realizing how lucky they are that this didn’t hurt more people, reported NewsNation affiliate KLAS.
“That (jet) didn’t sound good when it went over. It sounded like could have been an engine problem. Anything could have happened,” said Roger Madec, a 22-year Air Force veteran who was stationed at Nellis at one point, in an interview with KLAS.
The National Transportation Safety Board joined military officials in the investigation. Agency spokesman Eric Weiss said Tuesday it was too early to report on a cause of the crash.
Preliminary findings will be released within two weeks, Weiss said, and findings and a final report could take up to two years.
Draken spokeswoman Christina Childs said the company, based in Lakeland, Florida, was cooperating with federal, state and local authorities including the NTSB.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people and families affected by this event,” the company said a statement.
Draken provides tactical aircraft, “adversarial support, electronic attack or customized rotary wing training,” and pilots including former U.S. military personnel, for combat training at Nellis and other sites.
“We train the next generation of fighter pilots which is a crucial aspect of our national security,” Childs said in an email.
She did not immediately respond to messages about Hamilton’s military history.
In August 2016, not far from Nellis, a Draken pilot with more than two decades of experience received minor injuries when he ejected before the Douglas A-4K Skyhawk he was flying crashed in the desert near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Investigators later said it appeared that debris entered the engine of the Vietnam War-era attack jet, causing a loss of power.
NewsNation affiliate KLAS and The Associated Press contributed to this article; Ken Ritter/AP reporting.