TWAIN HARTE, Calif. -- The Air Force on Wednesday launched several F-16 fighters to help in the search for a pilot from Twain Harte whose plane disappeared over the Adriatic Sea near Italy on Monday. Family members expressed optimism that Capt. Lucas Gruenther will be found safely.
The fighter jets will help several other U.S. and Italian aircraft already involved in the search for Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing. Gruenther, who is stationed in Italy, was conducting a nighttime training sortie when the Air Force lost contact with his aircraft.
"If anyone could survive something like this, it would be Luc," Cassy Gruenther said of her husband in a news release provided by the military. She described her husband as a "self-reliant outdoorsmen who would sleep every night under the stars if he could" and said he's in excellent physical shape.
Search teams on Tuesday recovered debris believed to be from Gruenther's F-16 Fighting Falcon. On Wednesday, family members said searchers located Gruenther's drogue parachute and his helmet.
"The drogue chute is a good sign," said Cassy, who will deliver the couple's first child, a girl to be named Serene, in a few weeks. "It means he ejected, and we've been told the helmet is in good condition."
Family members said they heard Wednesday that searchers found evidence Gruenther ejected from his jet. They were encouraged because he likely carried survival gear, including a raft, food and water.
"While not a reconnaissance aircraft like the other aircraft already involved in the search, our F-16s have targeting pods which can be used to augment the search," Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist, 31st Fighter Wing commander, said in a news release. "The weather and size of the search area have limited our ability to provide assistance with F-16s up to this point; however, now that the ships and reconnaissance aircraft have refined the search area, we hope to help by putting more sensors and eyes out there."
Gruenther, a 1999 graduate of Summerville High in Tuolumne City and his wife, Cassy, are expecting their first child in a few weeks. The two were high school sweethearts at Summerville. Gruenther's mother and mother-in-law headed to Italy on Tuesday after being informed Gruenther was missing Monday.
"Luc has wanted to be a pilot since he was a little boy," Romel Mathias, Gruenther's mother, said in the military news release. "And, he did everything he had to do to get there. That's what he does with everything in his life. If he wants to do something, he finds a way to do it."
Cassy Greunther said that her husband plans to stay in the Air Force, potentially following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Army Gen. Alfred Gruenther, who served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1953 to 1956.
"He loves what he does," she said. "He's the kind of officer who knows the name of every maintainer out there on the flightline. I've always pictured him as a general one day, making a difference."
Zobrist said the search continues in full force.
"The search operation in the Adriatic is truly expansive," Zobrist said. "I'm grateful to the many Italian and U.S. professionals who are executing this mission, and I am hopeful that we will bring Captain Gruenther home safely."