Patrick Dodson had just stepped out to his front porch in Clinton when a noise made him glance up.

Planes were nothing new in his neighbourhood, with a private airfield a kilometre away and Joint Base Andrews just north. He'd often wondered what he'd do if he saw one go down.

"I'd never in my life thought that I would run toward a falling jet," said Dodson, 38. "That's something that heroes do. That's not me; I'm just a single father of two kids."

An F-16 that had taken off from Andrews a few minutes earlier was headed with three other aircraft to Pennsylvania for a surface attack training mission. It had mechanical problems within minutes.

Advertisement

The pilot, whom military officials would not identify, had only seconds to find a safe place to drop tanks containing more than a tonne of jet fuel, ideally in the glistening strip of the Potomac River a few kilometres to the south. He then had even fewer seconds to steer the crippled US$20 million fighter past the houses below and, hopefully, bail out before it was too late.

The pilot safely ditched the tanks, which military patrols would later recover. They plunged into woods flanked by suburban cul-de-sacs. The crash was close enough to spray debris and set small brush fires in the surrounding neighbourhood but remarkably caused no serious injuries or damage, local and military officials said.

Dodson's house on Maui Street gave him a chilling view of the unfolding crisis. The electrician looked up to see a fighter jet struggling to stay aloft, plumes of black smoke pouring from it.

Suddenly, a human shape shot up and away, sprawling in the sky; then another blob flashed up and spread into a parachute, jerking the human figure. He watched the pilot hang, drifting, as the plane nose-dived, streaking toward the house where he, his mother, sister and 4-year-old nephew were having a quiet morning.

"Get the [expletive] out of the house," he screamed to them as he began to run. He dialled emergency services on the phone that he had just used to text a friend. "A plane is crashing," he said.

As he yelled out the address, he realised he didn't know if the plane was "one of ours or another 9/11 attack." The jet was almost down, roaring in with a whoop, whoop, whoop. He threw his phone down as the plane streaked past the roofs on Wood Elves Way.

A fireball rose in the air. The blast knocked Dodson off his feet, he said. He jumped up and kept running, only to feel sharp stings in his arm and hand. He pulled a small piece of metal from his thumb, so hot he dropped it immediately.

He could hear the whizzing of what sounded like bullets all around him and he ducked momentarily around the corner of a house, wondering if a jet-load of ammunition was about to explode. Later, homeowners would report hearing the "pop" of exploding rounds for at least 10 minutes after the crash.

"I just tried to keep my eye on the pilot," Dodson said. "I was worried that he was heading into the woods."

Dodson knew his family was safe, as the explosion was about 200m from his house. His two kids were in school. He's a single dad of a 7- and a 9-year-old, and he had been heading to a parent-teacher conference when he had walked out of the house two minutes - and what seemed like a lifetime - ago.

So he started running again. Whoever that pilot was, he wanted to help him.

"I could hear [the shrapnel] hitting the trees all around me," he said.

It had been years since he ran full out, and it was hard to find the breath every few minutes to shout: "Pilot! Pilot! Can you hear me?" He tried to look up when he could, dodging low branches and forest debris, hoping not to see the flyer dangling injured from a treetop. "Pilot! Pilot!"

Air Force Security officers secure the area near the location where a military aircraft crashed in Clinton, Maryland. Photo / AP
Air Force Security officers secure the area near the location where a military aircraft crashed in Clinton, Maryland. Photo / AP

He reckons it was about 12 minutes after he left his porch that he heard a police helicopter setting down in a field. He ran out from the trees, skirting the spinning rotor, and saw a figure about 30m ahead trying to untangle himself from parachute cords.

"Are you OK?" Dodson said.

"Yes," the pilot answered. "Is everyone OK? I tried to stay away from the neighbourhood."

"I think you did. I think it hit the woods," Dodson said. "Were you carrying live ammo?"

Dodson said the pilot hesitated, then nodded. "Yes," he said.

A second helicopter landed, this one from the military.

The fighter pilot shook Dodson's hand and said, "Thank you," and began talking on a handheld radio.

"It was all in code; I don't know what they were saying," Dodson said. "I just turned around and ran back out of there."

When he emerged from the woods, he found a neighbourhood in relieved chaos. Prince George's County Fire Department officials were evacuating residents of about 20 nearby homes to a school, where families stayed until the all-clear was blown about two hours later. Firefighters put out the small brush fires that burning debris had started.

Residents and officials alike marveled at the close call.

"Word is he's in good spirits," District of Columbia Air National Guard General George Degnon said of the jet pilot.

Degnon said the aircraft was armed only with training rounds packed with small amounts of gunpowder, which possibly accounted for the metal that hit Dodson and the pops heard by neighbours.

"They're not high-explosive rounds," he said. "They're basically a piece of metal that flies through the air that aids in target practice."