Monday, September 01, 2014
The pilot who died in an F-15C fighter jet crash Wednesday was a seasoned pilot and decorated combat veteran who moved to western Massachusetts earlier this year to join the 104th Fighter Wing.
Officials at the Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield on Friday identified Lt. Col. Morris Fontenot Jr. as the pilot who died from injuries sustained when his plane crashed in the remote mountains of western Virginia on Wednesday.
Fontenot, 41, whose friends and family called him “Moose,” had flown the F-15 for more than 17 years, worked at Barnes as an F-15 instructor pilot and was the full-time wing inspector. With more than 2,300 flight hours, Fontenot was a decorated combat veteran who earned many medals and awards in recognition of his service.
He lived in Longmeadow with his wife, Kara.
“We all continue to keep the Fontenot family in our thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time,” Col. James Keefe of Northampton, 104th Fighter Wing Commander, said in a statement.
As State Police blocked media representatives from visiting the family’s home on Clairmont Street in Longmeadow Friday afternoon, one of Fontenot’s neighbors said he was saddened by the news.
“When a friend of mine who works at the base told me it was my neighbor, I just said ‘Oh, no,’ ” said Clairmont Street resident Michael Palazzi, a recreational pilot who keeps his four-seat aircraft at the hangar at Westfield-Barnes Airport.
Palazzi said the Fontenots moved in about four months ago and were still settling into the neighborhood. He said he occasionally spoke with “Moose” and his wife in passing, but did not know him that well.
“We talked in the street and I invited him over to use my tools whenever he wanted,” Palazzi said in an interview by cell phone on his way to the airport.
According to records in the Hampden County Registry of Deeds, the Fontenots bought the house in January.
Pilots are a small community and the news of Fontenot’s death hit Palazzi hard.
“We kind of bond together,” Palazzi said. “To hear anybody go down like that is devastating. It’s very disheartening to comprehend the crash.”
A 1996 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Fontenot had most recently served as commander of the 67th Fighter Squadron based in Kadena Air Force Base in Japan. He served as a squadron commander at multiple locations. Following active-duty assignments in Washington, D.C., Japan, Idaho, Florida, Alaska and numerous deployments in the Middle East, Fontenot joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard in February, according to base officials.
Facebook pages of people who either work at or are affiliated with the 104th in Barnes were full of condolences and sympathetic messages after officials identified Fontenot, including one from photographer Scott Bellone who said he had Fontenot’s wife, family and friends in his thoughts and prayers.
Bellone said he took several pictures of Fontenot earlier this summer at Barnes, one in which the fighter pilot flashed a “victory” sign and another in which a bag labeled “Moose” could be seen in the jet behind him. Bellone said he would likely head to the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport Friday afternoon to be around others.
“I just feel a sense of mourning and loss and I just want to be close to others who feel the same sense of remorse,” Bellone said.
While he never had the chance to spend time with Fontenot, Bellone has a connection to the family. The pilot’s wife, Kara, bought one of his prints of an F-15 jet late last year as a present for her husband and to celebrate the family’s move to the 104th Fighter Wing.
She told him the print was destined to be a centerpiece in a fighter pilot bar planned for the basement of their Longmeadow home and that he would be invited to visit once that happened.
“I didn’t get over to his house to see the print or meet him,” Bellone said.
Meantime, the mood at the base was somber Friday morning, said Maj. Matthew Mutti.
“It’s certainly somber but we are continuing to demonstrate resiliency to our primary mission of defending the Northeast airspace,” Mutti said. He added that 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.
Searchers found Fontenot’s body Thursday at the crash site in the mountains near Deerfield Valley, Virginia. The all-weather, tactical fighter was en route to Naval Air Station New Orleans to receive a radar systems upgrade. Fontenot 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.
The plane went down in a secluded and heavily wooded but level area next to a mountain in the George Washington National Forest.
An investigation is underway and is expected to take as long as three weeks to complete, officials estimate.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere outside the main gate of the Barnes Air National Guard base on Falcon Drive was quiet Friday, with little traffic in mid-afternoon. There were three news vans with satellite uplink equipment as reporters were waiting to deliver live reports using the base’s entrance as a backdrop.
Meanwhile, at the Barnes Municipal Airport an American flag outside flew at half-staff.
A handful of people were having a late lunch on the upper deck of Papp’s Bar & Grill, which overlooks the runway used by both private and military aircraft.
Benjamin Hoversland, who manages the restaurant, said some of the patrons coming in during the early afternoon were keeping tabs on details of the crash as they emerged. But things were getting back to normal. “It was something they talked about, but it wasn’t the complete conversation of the day,” he said. That was in contrast to earlier in the week when news of the accident surfaced.
“When people first heard about it, it was definitely a shock,” he said.
Hoversland said he did not recognize Fontenot as one of the pilots who sometimes frequents the restaurant, which opened three months ago. The general mood throughout the day was respectful, he said. “People feel for him and his family, it’s a sad thing.”
Veterans at the Forest Park VFW in Springfield, a few miles from Fontenot’s Longmeadow home, said Friday evening that they have been following the news of the crash on the television above the bar.
“My heart goes out to that family like you wouldn’t believe,” said Bill Gagnon, 57, of Springfield, a master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve who served a total of 23 years, including active duty in Texas, Vietnam and other locations.
“As a veteran, you don’t like to lose anybody. Anytime a veteran is hurt, all veterans hurt. We serve together.”
Reporters Gena Mangiaratti and Eric Goldscheider contributed to this story. Chad Cain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.