The burning fuselage of an F/A-18 Hornet lies smouldering after crashing into a residential building in Virginia Beach (AP)
A US fighter jet that malfunctioned just after take-off hurtled into a Virginia Beach apartment complex in a spectacular crash that sent flames and black smoke billowing from the rubble.
The two pilots managed to eject just before impact, suffering minor injuries along with five others on the ground.
Several residents described hearing a loud explosion and looking out their windows to see the red and orange blaze.
In the confusion that followed, two men helped one of the bloodied pilots from the two-seat F18 Hornet move to safety.
"Oh, my God, I heard three really loud explosions, then the black smoke went up high in the sky," said 71-year-old Felissa Ezell, who lives in a townhouse near the crash site.
By evening, emergency crews were searching through the charred remains of the complex, where some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. No fatalities had been reported.
Seven people, including the pilots from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana, were taken to a hospital. All except one of the pilots were released by late afternoon.
Fire Department Captain Tim Riley said more than two dozen residents remained unaccounted for, although all but the six most damaged apartments had been searched.
The plane had dumped loads of fuel before crashing, though it was not clear if that was because of a malfunction or an intentional manoeuvre by the pilots, said Captain Mark Weisgerber with US Fleet Forces Command.
The jet went down less than 10 miles from Oceana. Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach EMS division chief, said witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down, and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.