The search continued Thursday for an Air Force National Guard pilot whose F-15 fighter jet crashed and burned in the rugged forest of the Shenandoah Valley on Wednesday morning, officials said.
“There is an ongoing rescue mission,” Col. James Keefe, commander of the Massachusetts-based 104th Fighter Wing, said. “At this time we have not had contact with our pilot. The rescue mission is ongoing.”
Officials said Thursday that search efforts were centered around the southeast side of Mount Crawford, Va., near George Washington National Forest, and that rescue efforts included more than nine aircraft and more than 100 state police, sheriff’s deputies and fire and rescue personnel.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said about 10 search-and-rescue teams were hunting for the pilot .
The $30 million jet crashed in Virginia’s mountainous George Washington National Forest, about 160 miles southwest of Washington, authorities said.
The pilot was talking 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. Keefe said he could not confirm a witness report that the pilot had ejected and a parachute opened.
He said support was being provided to the pilot’s family.
“Our priorities are to both assist in the search and rescue operations, but also provide support to the family of our pilot as well as the unit here at home,” Keefe said Thursday.
Virginia State Police said they got word of the crash at 9:06 a.m. Wednesday 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,” Rebecca Shinaberry, 63, who lives on a farm about two miles away, told the Associated Press. The crash “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 the mountain as rescuers tried to get through thick forest to the crash site.
There were no injuries on the ground, state police said.
The plane was a Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C fighter jet, a model 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.
“We’re are not going to speculate on what occurred,” Keefe said.
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 in 2008, an F-15C broke into two pieces during a training mission in Missouri, prompting the service to ground hundreds of planes while it determined what happened.
A joint investigation by the Air Force found that defense contractor Boeing had 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.
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.