Navy fighter jet crashes in Death Valley National Park, pilot still missing

INYO COUNTY, Calif. -- A single-seat U.S. Navy fighter jet crashed Wednesday morning in Inyo County and the pilot's status was unknown, officials confirmed.

A search-and-rescue helicopter was dispatched to the scene from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake about 10 a.m., according to Commander Ron Flanders, a spokesman for U.S. Naval Air Forces.

Seven people on the ground suffered minor injuries, a spokesperson for Death Valley National Park said.

The seven who were injured are tourists from France, all members of the same family. They were at an overlook checking out the view of the canyon, and say they didn't even know the military used the area.

Most of them suffered nicks, cuts and burns when they were hit with shrapnel from the crash. One member of the group was more seriously injured with burn injuries on her back and was being taken to a Los Angeles-area hospital for treatment.

"We were in front of the valley and the planes crashed, around 50 meters from us," said one of the injured tourists.

Aaron Cassell was in the area, near a vista point called the Father Crowley Overlook, when the crash happened. He said he saw a large black cloud rise over the crash site and another Navy jet circling the scene.

"My father went up to the crash to see if he could help," Cassell said. "There was debris all over the Father Crowley parking lot and Father Crowley vista."

Joint Strike Fighter Wing public affairs officer. Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Bock said the aircraft was assigned to the "Vigilantes" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151 based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.

According to KNTV, initial reports indicated the jet went down on the west side of Death Valley National Park, near the Father Crowley Overlook, which has been temporarily closed.

The overlook is an area informally known as "Star Wars Canyon," which has been used for military training flights since the 1930s, said Patrick Taylor, a spokesperson for the park.

The location regularly attracts tourists eager to watch military pilots make their way through the narrow canyon in maneuvers that evoke the "Star Wars" films.

Hours after the crash, officials said the search for the pilot was continuing.

ABC News contributed to this report.
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