March 22, 2011— -- Two pilots ejected from their U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle today after an equipment malfunction caused the plane to crash 25 miles east of Benghazi, Libya, Monday night, according to U.S. officials.
Both had only minor injuries, and were safely recovered.
The aircraft, based out of the Royal Air Force Lakenheath base in northern England, was flying out of Aviano Air Base in Italy in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn when it went down. It was the first reported loss of a coalition aircraft during the conflict in Libya.
In Ghot Sultan, the wreckage of the F-15 drew a stream of curious visitors. People on the scene said one helicopter came to the site and fired warning shots as it touched down. It found one crewman and ferried him away.
However, a senior Marine official disputes the report that warning shots were fired. He said Harrier jets dropped two bombs to prevent the locals from coming near the pilot and that as far as he knows no other weapons were used.
That pilot is in good condition and is aboard the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Libya.
The pilot was picked up by a Marine search and rescue from the ship. The team launched its standard TRAP Mission (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel), sending two Ospreys, two CH-53E helicopters and two Harrier jets. The Harrier jets launched first to patrol the skies over the downed pilot and the helicopters carried 35 marines to serve as perimeter protection if needed.
Initially the pilot thought the pro-rebel villagers were Gadhafi supporters and requested that the Harrier jets drop two 500 pound bombs to prevent the locals from getting close. The bombs were dropped in a area between the pilot and the villagers to serve as a warning.
The pilot was eventually protected and given food and water by villagers who had initially thought the American plane was one of Gadhafi's. The villagers even expressed gratitude to the pilot for preventing a bloodbath in Benghazi. The pilot was eventually rescued by one of the Ospreys.
The second airman was picked up by villagers who convinced him they were friendly. An opposition council member came to the scene and took him to Benghazi, locals told ABC News. "He was treated with dignity and respect," and is now in back in U.S. hands, said Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa.
The loss of the plane is under investigation and the identities of the crew members will be released after the next of kin have been notified.
Officials blamed the crash on mechanical problems, but say until they recover the airplane, they cannot with absolute certainty determine the cause.
President Obama, who was in Chile when the incident happened, was notified late Monday night.
Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn is the U.S. Africa Command task force established to provide operational and tactical command and control of U.S. military forces supporting the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973.
As coalition strikes against Libya continue, the White House is pushing back against the idea that the international coalition supporting "Operation Odyssey Dawn" is fraying and that Obama didn't adequately consult with Congress before authorizing U.S. involvement in attacks against the Libyan government on Saturday.
Amid reports of potential partners such as Norway and the United Arab Emirates hesitating or pulling back from contributing military assets to the effort, a senior White House official told ABC News that "on any given day of a complex situation there will be different data points, but the fact is we have effectively destroyed Gadhafi's air defenses, he has pulled back from Benghazi, and the coalition continues to grow."
Italy has been pushing for a NATO command center for the Libyan operations since the Saturday meeting in Paris and wants it set up in the coming days, but that appears unlikely to happen.
Norway is reportedly also suspending its participation in military operations in Libya until the question of who is in command is clarified.
Members of the Arab League have also expressed skepticism about committing resources. Turkey, which is helping the United States, United Kingdom, Italy and Australia with diplomatic functions within Libya, has also expressed concern about military action.
But White House officials are challenging reports of tension.
On Monday, allied forces flew more missions than the United States for the first time, he said, indicating that the U.S. involvement is moving to the backseat, as Obama had initially promised.
The government of Qatar is "moving in a positive direction," the official said, with the Canadians, Spanish, Italians and Danes committing to join.
Two Qatar Air Force fighter jets and a cargo aircraft were heading to Crete Tuesday to join the coalition in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, officials told the Associated Press.
The no-fly zone is currently in place in Libya, but U.S. officials have acknowledged that the endgame may not necessarily involve the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, whose threat to raze the city of Benghazi sparked international military intervention.
U.S. and allied officials say their goal at the moment is to widen the no-fly zone, continuing smaller-scale attacks on Gadhafi's air defenses and to set the stage for a humanitarian relief mission.
But inside Libya, chaos continues to prevail. Coalition attacks inserted new energy into the rebel movement in Benghazi, but with the civilian death toll rising and conditions at hospitals deteriorating, residents are getting anxious.
There are "no safe zones in Misrata, no safe places, nobody secure," one doctor told BBC News. "This street, what's called Tripoli street or Ramadan street, they have snipers all over. They are shooting indiscriminately -- everywhere! Shelling, they are shelling. This morning we wake up and they're shelling and bombarding everything!"
On Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans seemed concerned about what they describe as a lack of adequate consultation with the White House. But the White House argued that this kind of limited mission falls within the president's constitutional authority.
"President Clinton pursued the intervention in Bosnia under quite similar circumstances," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Monday. "He did not have a congressional authorization but he did provide a letter, consistent with the War Powers Act. In that instance, for instance, in two weeks you had over 2,000 sorties flown by the United States."
Rhodes pointed to the set of hearings on Capitol Hill that preceded the White House's move.
"On March 1st, the Senate passed a resolution that condemned the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including the attacks on protesters, and urging the United Nations to take action to protect civilians," he said.
ABC News' Huma Khan and Kevin Dolak contributed to this report.