Friday, August 29, 2014
The pilot who died in an F-15 fighter jet crash has been identified as Lt. Col. Morris "Moose" Fontenot Jr. A search for a missing 104th Fighter Wing pilot ended Thursday evening after rescue crews found Fontenot dead in the remote mountains of western Virginia.
Officials at the Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield confirmed Fontenot's identity this afternoon shortly after noon. Fontenot is believed to be from Longmeadow, though National Guard officials would not confirm that. Searchers found Fontenot's body Thursday night at the crash site in the mountains near Deerfield Valley, Virginia, about 5 p.m. He died from injuries sustained when the F-15C fighter jet crashed shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, said Col. James Keefe of Northampton, 104th Fighter Wing Commander, during a late-night press conference near the base’s entrance.
“This is a devastating day for the family of our deceased pilot and the members of the 104th Fighter Wing and the entire F-15 community,” Keefe said. “These tragedies remind us of the risk that our brave men and women take every day.”
Keefe said base officials have met with the family and at their request will not release the pilot’s name until after extended family can be notified. Barnes officials expect to release his name Friday afternoon, Keefe said.
The all-weather, tactical fighter was en route to Naval Air Station New Orleans to receive a radar systems upgrade. The pilot reported an in-flight emergency prior to the loss of radio contact with air traffic controllers in Washington, D.C., at about 9:05 a.m. Wednesday. Keefe said the plane was flying at about 30,000 to 40,000 feet when the pilot reported the emergency.
The plane went down in a secluded and heavily wooded but level area next to a mountain in the George Washington National Forest. There were no munitions on board the jet at the time of the crash.
Investigators had difficulty getting to the site Thursday morning. When they did get close to the crash site on Thursday, Keefe said investigators were further delayed by a fire and related hazards around the site.
“Until that site was safely secured, we weren’t able to get investigators to the crash site to look for signs of the pilot,” Keefe said.
He declined to speculate why the pilot did not eject from the jet. Keefe also declined to talk about specifics of the crash, saying that it will take as long as three weeks to complete an investigation.
“It’s tough to get up there so it’s going to take some time initially to get out to the crash site,” he said.
Keefe thanked the more than 100 officials from 30 local, state and federal agencies in Virginia who spent 30 hours searching for the pilot in dangerous terrain.
“They truly live up to our charge to never leave an airman behind,” Keefe said.
Keefe said F-15 crashes are rare. The last time an F-15 went down was in 2007 when a National Guard unit based in St. Louis lost a plane. The last time Barnes had an aircraft loss was in 1999 and the pilot was recovered safely, Keefe said.
“Flying fighters is a dangerous game,” Keefe said. “Our men and women go out there every day. It’s a very stressful environment.”
Earlier in the day, search crews had targeted the southeast side of Mount Crawford in the Washington National Forest near Deerfield Valley.
Rescue efforts included more than nine aircraft, including an HC-130 assigned to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia which has equipment designed for search and rescue operations. More than 100 state police, sheriff’s deputies, fire and rescue personnel were searching on the ground.
In addition, the 104th Fighter Wing had 16 members in Virginia assisting in securing the site and coordinating rescue operations, according to Barnes officials.
Maj. Matthew Mutti, from Barnes, said the 104th Fighter Wing has set up its Emergency Family Assistance Center to provide counseling, support and any religious services requested by the pilot’s family and others at Barnes.
F-15s are maneuverable tactical fighters that can reach speeds up to 1,875 mph, according to the Air Force website. The F-15C Eagle entered the Air Force inventory in 1979 and costs nearly $30 million, according to the website. The Air Force has nearly 250 F-15s.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chad Cain can be reached at email@example.com.