Search continues for pilot of F-15C fighter jet from Barnes that crashed in Virginia Wednesday

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
WESTFIELD — The search for the pilot of an F-15C fighter jet that crashed in Virginia after flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield continued into the night Wednesday. State and local law enforcement and military personnel combed the remote, wooded, mountainous area in western Virginia, hoping that the pilot parachuted to safety there.

The single-seat aircraft crashed Wednesday morning after the pilot reported an in-flight emergency, according to officials at the base in Westfield. The 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard lost radio contact with the jet at 9:05 p.m. and learned of the crash at 9:30 a.m., according to a press release. Authorities have not identified the missing pilot. There were no reported injuries on the ground, according to the Virginia State Police.

“It’s very alarming to hear that something like this happened,” said Michael Palazzi, a recreational pilot who keeps his four-seat aircraft at the hangar at Westfield-Barnes Airport adjacent to the Air National Guard Base. Palazzi was interviewed at the public airport Wednesday night.

“My neighbor is an F-15 pilot, so I’m concerned about that,” said Palazzi, who lives in Longmeadow.

At an outdoor bar at the airport, while lightning flashed over the runways and parked planes, the bartender wondered aloud if the missing pilot was one of the many Air National Guard members he regularly serves.

Inside at Papp’s Bar and Grill, news coverage of the search in Virginia was on the big screen television that hung over the bar.

“It was surprising to learn somebody local could be involved,” said patron Michelle Meczywor of Westfield. She said she saw news stories about the crash posted on Facebook throughout Wednesday, “and everyone was sending out prayers” that the pilot would be found alive.

Palazzi said he knows many people who work at the Air National Guard base, including pilots and the mechanics who work on the F-15C fighter jets, which are an older model.

Barnes officials said the jet that went down in Virginia was a 1986 model heading to Louisiana for a radar system upgrade. “They’re maintained to the nth degree, and the pilots are so well trained,” Palazzi said.

Palazzi, who has 20-plus years of flying experience, said mechanical failures and other risky scenarios that can occur are why pilots undergo so much training. “Hopefully, you can minimize those emergency situations,” he said.

According to the The News Leader in Staunton, Virginia, witnesses reported to the county sheriff’s office that they saw a parachute in the air near the scene of the crash.

If the pilot ejected, Palazzi said, he could have landed quite far from where his plane crashed.

Lt. Anthony Mutti, a spokesman for Barnes Air National Guard Base, said that a small number of military personnel took off from Barnes Wednesday night to aid in the search in Virginia.

The News Leader reported that Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrinne Geller said Wednesday the search would continue through the night using helicopters, with searchers also on foot and horseback, along with help from dogs. She said crews had finished searching in the vicinity of the crash site and at night would target paths, creeks and other treeless areas.

Those involved in the search include Virginia Army National Guard, Virginia Air National Guard, local fire and police agencies, Virginia State Police and federal agencies, according to Barnes officials.

At a press conference at the Air National Guard base Wednesday afternoon, Col. James Keefe, 104th Fighter Wing Commander, said that information on the incident is developing and that military officials were not going to speculate on what had happened or on the status of the pilot.

“It is not a common occurrence to have an F-15 crash,” Keefe said. “It’s a traumatic event for everyone here. We’re thinking about the family.”

Keefe, of Northampton, said the pilot was very experienced and like all F-15 pilots, receives ejection training every six months. However, he said that if the pilot did eject from the jet fighter, he may not have a radio or survival equipment as the pilots are trained to release the equipment over wooded areas if they do eject from aircrafts.

The plane crashed in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest near Deerfield Valley in Virginia. Keefe said the crash site is approximately five to six miles from the nearest community and at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. There also is no cell phone coverage in the area of the crash, according to the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office.

“He’s been well-trained to survive,” Keefe said of the pilot.

The aircraft had no munitions on board, according to Barnes officials. Keefe said the fighter jet was at a very high elevation when the pilot first reported an emergency by radio to air traffic controllers in Washington, D.C.

The F-15C is about 64-feet long with a wing span of nearly 43 feet. The all-weather, tactical fighter specializing in aerial combat can reach a speed of 1,875 miles per hour and a top elevation of 65,000 feet, according to the U.S. Air National Guard. They can carry a variety of air-to-air weaponry.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com. Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.