After more than 17 years flying the F-15, Lieutenant Colonel Morris “Moose” Fontenot Jr. was on track to reach the highest heights in the United States Air Force.
Fontenot, however, had different aspirations, and sought more stability for his family, who moved every two to three years as active duty service shuffled the fighter pilot around the globe, his commander said.
He finally started to put down some roots in February when he joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard and took a position with the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass.
But his new life took a tragic turn on Wednesday when the F-15C aircraft he was piloting crashed in the mountains of western Virginia. Officials carried out a two-day search before announcing late Thursday that Fontenot had been killed. Fontenot’s unit made his name public on Friday.
“It's just a huge loss. Not just for the 104 [Fighter Wing] and his family, but for the Massachusetts National Guard, the Air Force, and the United States of America,” said Colonel James Keefe, who commands Fontenot’s unit.
Fontenot joined the National Guard after serving as commander of the 67th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, Keefe said. At Barnes, he assumed the roles of Wing Inspector General and F-15 instructor pilot. He had logged more than 2,300 flight hours during his career.
Keefe said it was unusual for someone of Fontenot’s credentials and experience to join the National Guard.
“We actually asked him, ‘Why would you want to come into the Guard?’” said Keefe. “His response was he wanted to get some stability for him and his family. That tells you what kind of guy he was.”
Major General L. Scott Rice, the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, said at the Westfield base Fontenot was put in charge of implementing changes the Air Force is making to its inspection protocols.
“We picked the perfect guy to build on the exceptional reputation of the 104th Fighter Wing . . . and bring the unit to an even higher level of professionalism,” Rice said in an e-mail. “In just a few months, he made a significantly positive impact on the unit and all of us as National Guards men and women.”
Fontenot settled with his family in Longmeadow, where a neighbor recalled how he helped her husband and daughter dig out from the snow during the harsh winter.
“He was a pleasant person. He also helped us. We got stuck in the snow a few times last winter. He would run out with this plower and help us out,” said Bella Feldman, a neighbor.
Reached by phone, Fontenot’s wife declined to comment.
Fontenot graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1996 and also trained at the Air Force Weapons School, according to his unit. He was a squadron commander in multiple locations and completed active duty assignments in Washington, D.C., Idaho, Japan, Florida, and Alaska. He also deployed multiple times to the Middle East, his unit said.
Fontenot had been flying an F-15 Eagle from Massachusetts to New Orleans for a scheduled system upgrade when it went down near Deerfield, Va. Rescuers had left open the possibility that he had been able to eject before the impact, but eventually found his body in the wreckage.
Radio signals from the pilot had been detected just before the crash but not afterward.
The Massachusetts Air National Guard on Friday thanked searchers for their efforts.
“The level of support provided by a number of states and at the federal level has been very helpful during this challenging time,” Rice said in a statement.
Bob Gobble, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Beavercreek, Ohio, said he last saw Fontenot in July when he attended a reunion of people who developed the F-15 Eagle. Like Fontenot, the 77-year-old Gobble said he also served with the 67th Fighter Squadron.
The unit is sometimes referred to as the “Fighting Cocks” and uses an image of a chicken wearing boxing gloves as its symbol, Gobble said.
“It’s one of the front line fighting squadrons in the Air Force,” Gobble said. “Being the commander of the 67th is a tremendous honor.”
Gobble recalled singing fighter pilot songs with Fontenot while they were at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He said they both knew the words to a tune about a someone writing a letter to the mother of a fighter pilot who was killed.
Fighter pilots, Gobble said, consider themselves to be untouchable so they can carry out their dangerous jobs.
“It’s always going to be somebody else not you because you’re invincible,” said Gobble. “And if you don’t think that you can’t be a fighter pilot.”Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.