Wednesday crash sobering for tightly knit community at Barnes

Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014
WESTFIELD — Several hours before officials at the Barnes Air National Guard confirmed that the pilot whose F-15C Eagle fighter jet crashed in a remote area of Virginia had died, talk at the regional airport next door centered around the pilot and his family.

“We all feel for the family, I think that goes without saying,” said Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport manager Brian Barnes, a former A-10 fighter jet pilot who retired in 2009 from the Air National Guard after 28 years.

Westfield photographer Scott Bellone, who has photographed many of the aircraft in Barnes’ F-15 fleet over the years, said the F-15 pilot community is small, with some 36 pilots at the base who fly the 18 jets in two-man crews.

Bellone said when he heard about the crash Wednesday, he grew concerned about many of the acquaintances he has made over the years as an aviation buff and amateur photographer. Bellone said he was relieved when some of the pilots posted messages on Facebook saying they were OK, but he remained worried for the pilot who had been missing since the crash Wednesday morning.

“The part where my heart kind of sank is not knowing his condition,” said Bellone, speaking some six hours before Air National Guard officials announced at 9 p.m. that the pilot had died.

Barnes said those who work at the airport or frequent its restaurant took news of the crash hard. He said members of the Guard, perhaps unlike crews at military bases, are special because they become so deeply involved in the fabric of the local communities where they live. They coach sports teams, frequent local businesses and send their children to local schools.

“Guard people all live here so when something like this happens, it’s very personal,” Barnes said.

Though Barnes and others interviewed Thursday said they did not know the identity of the pilot, there is a likelihood they may know the victim.

Barnes recalled his own training during his days piloting A-10 fighter jets. Because the jets Barnes flew were similar to the F-15, he said much of the extensive egress and survival training he received is similar to what today’s pilots go through. The training involves how to survive a seat ejection, how to parachute into rough terrain and how to survive in a variety of places, including dense woods.

“Training is part of the culture for being a fighter pilot,” Barnes said.

In his day, pilots wore their parachutes on the plane, but today the parachute is located within the seat. The seat also includes a kit with a radio and survival items, he said. Sometimes, Barnes said, pilots will ditch the kit as they are about to land to avoid injury.

Even when pilots are not training, they tend to think about it. Barnes said it’s common for pilots to think about their seat checks or ask safety experts about their harness inspections.

“It is never far from your mind,” Barnes said.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.