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Family watches as F-16 pilot crashes

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TULIA, Texas — Pilot Steve Simons always let his family and friends know when a flight pattern for the Air Force Reserves would take him over their tiny Panhandle town.

It didn't happen often, but before he took a solo flight Monday night, he called them to say he'd be guiding his F-16 fighter jet across their piece of sky.

So a few residents of the town halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo, including Simon's father-in-law, Cletus Dobbs, gathered to watch.

What they saw was horrific: The fighter jet suddenly seemed to lose power as its pilot tried to turn around for a second pass. Moments later, the F-16 plummeted to the ground and burst into flames.

Simons, 41, the father of two girls, died in the crash.

"Me and my wife were out in front of the house, and he rode that plane down to keep from hitting us or the house," Dobbs said. "He gave his life for us."

On Tuesday, most of the debris remained at the crash site, spread out over a quarter-mile. Disaster crews surrounded the scene as cattle roamed in a nearby field.

When the jet went down, Dobbs said he couldn't believe what he'd seen. He rushed to his truck to drive closer, hoping to help his son-in-law. Paramedics who got to the scene first stopped him nearby.

"I can just imagine how he was sitting in that plane pulling those levers trying to steer it where he wanted it to go without any power," he said.

Simons flew for Delta Air Lines and spent free time in the Air Force Reserves, after attending the U.S. Air Force Academy. Dobbs said Simons planned to retire from the Air Force next year, after 20 years of service.

The military said Simons was completing a cross-country solo training mission Monday by flying from Hill Air Force Base in Utah back to Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

The F-16C Fighting Falcon is a single-seat, single engine $20 million airplane used in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. Between January 1999 and March 2000, 16 have crashed in major accidents.