Search and rescue teams combed a rugged national forest area on the West Virginia-Virginia border Wednesday for the pilot of a Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C Eagle fighter that crashed after he reported an in-flight emergency.
"We are hopeful that the pilot is OK, and the pilot will be in our thoughts and prayers," said Col. James Keefe, commander of the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard base near Westfield, Mass. "We are not going to speculate on what occurred, or the status of the pilot," Keefe said.
Helicopters from the Virginian Air National Guard and the Army National Guard were taking the lead in the search, backed by local fire and police teams, Keefe said.
"People are on site. We actually have helicopters over the site doing the search-and-rescue mission, but we have not been able to talk to anybody," Keefe said. There were no immediate reports of any injuries on the ground.
The plane was not carrying any munitions on a cross-country flight from Barnes to Louisiana to receive an upgrade to its radar system when the last communication came from the pilot at 9:05 a.m. reporting an emergency, Keefe said. "He was pretty high when he reported the emergency" at an altitude above 30,000 feet – "probably in the high 30s to low 40s," Keefe said.
Shortly before 9 a.m., residents near Deerfield, Va., reported hearing a loud noise that sounded like an explosion, Augusta County Sheriff's Office dispatcher Becky Coyner told the Associated Press.
Keefe said that the pilot of a small aircraft in the area reported seeing smoke coming from a heavily-forested area at about 9:30 a.m. The civilian pilot did not report seeing a parachute, Keefe said. The search also was hampered by difficulties with cell phone communication, Keefe said.
The pilot of the single-seat F-15C was a "very experienced pilot" who received training on ejection every six months, Keefe said. He noted that Air National Guard pilots usually have more flying time than active duty Air Force pilots.
The 104th also had an excellent safety record, Keefe said.
"I can't tell you the last time we had a mishap," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com