Sunday, March 16, 2008

Probable call-out for our friends at PJcountry

JJ Hensley
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 16, 2008 12:00 AM

The body of a fighter pilot whose plane went down in western Arizona on Friday was finally discovered Saturday afternoon.

The Air Force student pilot, assigned to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, was flying an F-16C fighter jet out of Luke Air Force Base when his plane crashed in a remote area about 12:15 p.m. Friday.

Air Force officials couldn't reveal much information at a Saturday afternoon news conference but did confirm the pilot was a 26-year-old man who was a couple of months into an 8-month F-16 flight-training course.

The pilot's name is being withheld until his family is notified.

"It's very difficult," said Brig. Gen. Tom Jones, the 56th Fighter Wing commander. "We are a very close-knit community, a very tight wing and organization."

A committee conducting a two-part investigation into the accident will convene immediately and take about 30 days to put together a report, Jones said.

The wreck occurred about 87 miles west of Phoenix, south of Alamo Lake, an area where Luke fighter pilots frequently train.

The terrain was so rugged that helicopters flew search crews in Friday night after the wreckage was discovered about 10:30 p.m.

Search crews from the Department of Public Safety, the Civil Air Patrol and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, among other agencies, combed the area Friday night and discovered some of the pilot's equipment but weren't able to locate his body until Saturday morning.

The body was discovered near the crash site, in a ravine in the Buckskin Mountains, but crews weren't able to tell if the pilot had attempted to eject from the plane before it crashed, Jones said.

The student-pilot was about halfway through a 90-minute training exercise, engaged in a mock dogfight with an instructor, when his plane crashed.

Air Force officials said training exercises would continue, but the results of the two-tiered investigation - one of which looks into fault-finding in the accident while the other looks at training safety - could influence future operations. The F-16's are worth about $20 million.

The latest fatal crash of a Luke-based jet also occurred during a routine training exercise, when Singapore Air Force 1st Lt. Brandon Loo went down south of the Barry M. Goldwater Range in May 2004.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lovelace was part of that training mission and saw Loo's plane crash. Lovelace said he felt for the flight instructor who witnessed Friday's crash. "(It's) very difficult," he said. "Personal. Very personal."