An Air Force National Guard pilot whose F-15 fighter jet crashed and burned in the rugged forest of the Shenandoah Valley Wednesday morning had not been recovered by late afternoon, the commander of his unit said.
“There is an ongoing rescue mission,” said Col. James Keefe, commander of the Massachusetts-based 104th Fighter Wing. “At this time we have not had contact with our pilot. The rescue mission is ongoing. Until we know the status of the pilot, we can’t release more information.”
Keefe, speaking to reporters in Massachusetts, said he could not confirm a witness report that the pilot had ejected and a parachute opened.
The $30-million jet crashed in Virginia’s mountainous George Washington National Forest, about 160-miles southwest of Washington, authorities said.
The plane’s pilot was in conversation with civilian air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Washington Center in Leesburg just before the crash. The FAA declined to characterize the nature of the conversation or indicate whether the pilot was reporting problems in flight.
“The good thing was he did have notification something was wrong with the aircraft, and he did make that call to the Washington center,” Keefe said, declining to define the nature of the problem.
Virginia State Police said they got word of the crash at 9:06 a.m. from residents in the Augusta County community of Deerfield, a village to the west of Interstate 81 about 50 miles southwest of Harrisonburg.
“It’s the loudest noise I’ve ever heard,” 63-year-old Rebecca Shinaberry, who lives on a farm about two miles away, told The Associated Press. “(It) just shook the ground, and from my house we could just see a big plume of smoke.”
State police said heavy smoke was coming from the side of a nearby mountain. State police and officers from the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office were attempting to get through thick forest to the crash site.
There were no reported injuries on the ground, the state police said.
The plane was described as a Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C fighter jet, a model of the aircraft that is flown by a one-person crew. Military authorities said the plane took off from Barnes Air National Guard Base in western Massachusetts on a cross-country mission to test and upgrade its systems. The pilot, assigned to the 104th Fighter Wind, was flying over the Shenandoah Valley on the way to Louisiana when he reported an in-flight emergency and then lost radio contact.
“Information on this incident is developing rapidly and we are not going to speculate on what occurred or the status of the pilot”, Keefe said. “We are hopeful that the pilot is okay, and the pilot will be in our thoughts and prayers as the events of this incident unfold.”
F-15 fighters have been flown since 1976, with the single-seat F-15C version that crashed Wednesday first appearing in 1978. The F-15 has been one of the Air Force’s most reliable jets. But it has had issues. In 2008, an F-15C broke into two pieces during a training mission over Missouri, prompting the service to ground hundreds of planes while it determined what happened.
A joint investigation by the Air Force eventually determined that the problems occurred because defense contractor Boeing provided defective parts for the jets. The company provided $1 million in replacement pieces to the Defense Department in a settlement to address the problem, a move that was criticized by some who pointed out that the cost of a single F-15 is about $31 million.
An F-15C crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 2013 while flying a mission from a U.S. base in Japan. The pilot ejected safely. Investigators attributed the crash primarily to a malfunction in a flight control system.
— Channing Frampton (@WHSVChanning) August 27, 2014