DEERFIELD, Va. — The massive search for a Massachusetts Air National Guard pilot whose fighter jet crashed into a mountainous region here ended late Thursday when officials confirmed he was found dead in the wreckage.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and we are doing all we can to support them during this very difficult time,” Colonel James Keefe, commander of the 104th Fighter Wing in Westfield, Mass., said in a statement. “We ask that everyone respect the privacy of the family and allow them the time they need to grieve.”
The pilot, whom officials did not name on Thursday, was flying an F-15 Eagle jet from the Massachusetts base to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans to undergo a scheduled system upgrade. The plane crashed about 9:05 a.m. Wednesday; radio contact with the pilot was lost about five minutes earlier, after the pilot reported an in-flight emergency.
Governor Deval Patrick also offered condolences in a statement.
“This is a very sad day for the Guard and for Massachusetts,” Patrick said. “Throughout the last couple of days, as we learned the circumstances of this accident, we held out hope that the pilot would be found and returned safely to his family. Our prayers and condolences are with his family, the wing command and all the members of the Massachusetts National Guard.”
Some eyewitnesses had said they believed they saw a parachute when the went down, indicating the pilot had ejected.
However, Brigadier General Robert Brooks, head of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, said evidence was found at the crash site Thursday afternoon indicating that the pilot did not eject from the aircraft.
‘As long as you are a serviceman or woman we take it to heart and are going to do everything we can.’Brigadier General Timothy P. Williams, Virginia National Guard
“Today was a tough day for the Massachusetts Air National Guard,” Brooks told reporters in Deerfield. “We want to thank everyone in the local area for their support.”
The crash sparked a large search through Wednesday and into Thursday, with investigators examining debris found in the remote mountains near Deerfield Valley. Radio signals from the pilot had been detected just before the crash but not afterward.
“Being a National Guardsman, whether you are from Massachusetts, Virginia, or wherever, as long as you are a serviceman or woman we take it to heart and are going to do everything we can,” said Brigadier General Timothy P. Williams, the head of the Virginia National Guard, during the search for the pilot.
By late Thursday, the search, which involved surveillance aircraft and helicopters from National Guard units from across five states, was concentrating on the southeast side of Mount Crawford, according to officials.
More than 100 State Police, sheriff’s deputies, and search and rescue personnel staged out of the Deerfield Fire Department traced some of the area’s logging roads and fire trails and interviewed locals for any possible signs of the pilot.
Sixteen members of the 104th Fighter Wing, the Westfield-based unit where the aircraft was assigned, arrived late Wednesday to help secure the crash site.
The Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the Air Force, dispatched several rescue teams of between four and 12 people to traverse designated areas in six-hour shifts.
The Crawford Mountain search area, just a few miles inside the eastern border of the national forest, was selected based on the location of the last communication from the plane and the crash site — along with calculations of wind direction and speed, according to Cotton Puryear, a spokesman for the Virginia National Guard.
The George Washington National Forest covers roughly one million acres in Virginia and West Virginia. Though remote, the area has a fairly well developed network of trails and logging roads.
But the size of the area where the pilot could have ejected is vast. If the pilot ejected at high altitude, as high as 40,000 feet, he could have drifted at least a mile for every 1,000 feet he descended, officials said.
“It’s a bad search area,” said Lieutenant David Cooper of the Virginia State Police, the designated on-site commander. “It is difficult for our people to traverse.
The thick canopy of trees, meanwhile, was proving to be a hindrance to surveillance aircraft, even for the specially equipped HC-130 aircraft from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, which is designed for nighttime search and rescue operations.