* F/A-18 from training squadron crashes soon after takeoff
* Plane had mechanical malfunction
* Pilot apologizes for crash
* Seven people sustain minor injuries (Makes clear 7 civilians injured, four taken to hospital)
By Matthew Ward
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., April 6 (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy F/A-18D fighter crashed into an apartment complex in Virginia soon after takeoff on Friday, sending fireballs into the sky, damaging six buildings and injuring at least seven people.
No deaths have been reported, but three residents of the Mayfair Mews complex for the elderly were unaccounted for, authorities said.
“We have physically been in every structure, and we have 95 percent completed the search and rescue,” Virginia Beach Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Tim Riley said.
All the injuries, including those to the F/A-18 crew, have so far been described as minor, officials said. Both crew members ejected safely from the aircraft before it crashed into the buildings in Virginia Beach, and one pilot was found still strapped into his ejection seat.
Four of the injured were taken to a hospital for treatment. Authorities had said nine people were injured, but later revised the number to seven, not including the pilots.
The F/A-18D “suffered a catastrophic mechanical malfunction” during a training flight, Navy Captain Mark Weisgerber said in a statement from the Pentagon.
Thick black clouds of smoke billowed into the air as fire reduced the apartment buildings to a blackened shell. The Mayfair Mews complex was less than two miles (3.2 km) from Naval Air Station Oceana, where the F-18D was based.
Crews searched for any injured residents in five buildings, several of which have collapsed, Riley said. Three residents in one building were unaccounted for. Investigators will remain on the scene for three or four more days after the search is complete, Riley said.
Witness Kelly McQuaid, who lives near the apartment complex, said the jet was on fire before it crashed.
“It almost looked like the nose was pointed up,” she said, “like he was trying to pull back up.”
McQuaid said she saw one of the pilots as he was brought out on a stretcher. ”He actually looked pretty well,“ she said. You could tell he was pretty dazed, and there were scratches on his face.”
She said people closer to the scene told her that the pilot apologized for crashing the plane into the building as he was being helped.
Vicki Hoffman, who lives in a condo next door to the Mews, said one pilot landed on her neighbor’s patio.
“She said she was trying to get his head gear off and said the response was very quick,” she said. “He was conscious.”
The distinctive, twin-finned tail section of the F/A-18D landed in the courtyard of the complex of two-story brick buildings.
Dozens of firefighters and emergency workers converged on the scene, covering the apartment complex with foam.
The plane was part of a training squadron at Oceana, the largest Navy air facility on the East Coast. It prepares Navy and Marine aviators and weapons officers for duty. About 250 aircraft are stationed at Oceana.
Admiral John Harvey Jr, commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces, praised the “heroic response” of those at the complex and emergency personnel who took care of the air crew and others at the scene.
There are 37 tactical squadrons of F-18s operating from bases worldwide and from 10 aircraft carriers. The Navy’s precision air team, the Blue Angels, flies the F-18.
Virginia Beach, with 440,000 residents, is on the Atlantic Coast about 200 miles (320 km) south of Washington, D.C. Much of its economy relies on tourists who come to enjoy its miles of beaches. The city is home to a complex of military bases, including Oceana, and the home of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet is next door at Norfolk, Virginia. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Tom Brown, Chuck Abbott, and Missy Ryan; Editing by Greg McCune and Stacey Joyce)