A Navy “aggressor” jet that plays the role of an enemy fighter in mock battles with Navy pilots crashed Wednesday off Key West, Florida. The plane’s pilot ejected before the crash and was picked up by a Navy helicopter soon after. 

The F-5N fighter and its pilot were assigned to Fighter Composite Squadron 111 (VFC-111), known as the “Sun Downers.” The squadron flies “aggressor” missions, acting as enemy aircraft in simulated battles with front-line Navy, Marine and Air Force fighter squadrons. To make the training as realistic as possible, aggressor pilots train full time in the tactics used by air forces the US might one day face in combat.

The Navy did not disclose the reason for the pilot ejecting, the pilot’s identity or the nature of the mission, other than that it was “routine.” The pilot ejected at around 9:20 a.m. roughly 25 miles from Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, and was picked up by a Key West-based MH-60S helicopter and taken to a Miami-area hospital for evaluation, according to a statement from the Navy. 

Active Duty photo

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The F-5N, has always fulfilled a bit of an unsung role in US military aviation. First flown in 1963, the F-5 was developed in tandem with the similar T-38 supersonic trainer, the two-seat aircraft that nearly all Air Force fighter pilots learn to fly before branching out to their specific fighter jet (new Navy fighter pilots receive early flight training on T-45s).  Though flown only briefly as a front-line fighter by US pilots in the early years of the Vietnam war, the F-5 has been exported to countless countries and has been used for decades by squadrons like VFC-111 as an “aggressor” 

The F-5 also has a glamorous history in media and movies. F-5s played the “MiGs” in  Top Gun, appear in the  Japanese comic book Area 88  and its simple silhouette often plays a kind of stand-in for a generic jet fighter. 

Essentially, it’s the complete opposite of, say, an F-35. 

Active Duty photo

The incident is under investigation, according to the Navy.