The target was an object on the ground well within the confines of the Warren Grove firing range, a 2,400-acre scrub pine expanse used by the military to train pilots in bombing and strafing techniques.
But when the heavy gun in the left wing of an Air National Guard F-16 fighter jet fired Wednesday night, it sent 25 rounds of 20mm ammunition smashing through the roof and zinging off the asphalt parking lot of the Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School 3½ miles from the range.
Military investigators on Friday were trying to determine how it could have happened.
A custodian was the only person in the school when the shots hit at 11 p.m., and no one was injured.
The jet that fired the rounds was assigned to the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. It returned there after the shots were fired, an Air National Guard spokesman said.
Pilot not named
Military officials would not identify the pilot. Operations were suspended at the firing range pending completion of the investigation.
Police were called after the custodian heard what sounded like someone running across the roof.
Police Chief Mark Siino said officers who responded noticed punctures in the roof. Ceiling tiles had fallen into classrooms, and there were scratch marks in the asphalt outside.
The pilot of the single-seat jet was supposed to fire at a ground target on the firing range 3½ miles from the school, said Col. Brian Webster, commander of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which is responsible for the range.
The plane was flying at 7,000 feet when the rounds were fired from the M61-A1 Vulcan cannon in the plane’s left wing. The weapon fires 2-inch-long lead projectiles that do not explode, Webster said.
Webster said he did not know what caused the gun to fire.
“The National Guard takes this situation very seriously,” said Lt. Col. Roberta Niedt, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “The safety of our people and the surrounding communities are our foremost concern.”
Nearby firing range a worry
Mike Dupuis, president of the township’s Board of Education, said school workers are mindful that the firing range is nearby.
“Being so close to the range, that’s always in the back of our minds. It is very scary. I have children in that school and relatives that work there,” he said.
Schools in New Jersey were closed Thursday because of a teachers convention.
The Warren Grove range, about 30 miles north of Atlantic City, has been used by the military since the end of World War II, long before the surrounding area was developed.
In 2002, an Air National Guard F-16 that had been practicing at the range crashed along the Garden State Parkway. The plane’s pilot ejected safely, and no one on the ground was hurt.
Errant practice bombs were blamed for forest fires that burned more than 11,000 acres of the Pine Barrens near the range in 1999 and more than 1,600 acres in 2002.