Air Force Lt. Col. Morris Fontenot, the the commander of the 67th Fighter Squadron, is seen at Komatsu Air Base, Japan, in 2013. (Staff Sgt. Amber E. N. Jacobs / Air Force)
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Massachusetts Air National Guard Lt. Col. Morris Fontenot Jr., whose F-15C crashed Aug. 27 in rural western Virginia, never managed to eject from his aircraft.
Investigators made that grim discovery when they were finally able to safely enter the crash site after more than 30 hours of searching the mountainous area.
The somber news was delivered during an Thursday news conference in Deerfield, Virginia, where roughly 150 searchers made their base during the two-day search for the pilot. Fontenot’s name was released Friday.
The 1996 Air Force Academy graduate, assigned to the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Station, Massachusetts, was an F-15 instructor pilot with more than 2,300 flight hours. He graduated from Air Force Weapons School and had flown the F-15 for more than 17 years, according to the wing. He had joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard in February and also served as the wing's inspector general.
“Today was a tough day for the Massachusetts Air National Guard, as we learned we lost a great American, a warrior, a leader and most importantly a family member,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Brooks of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
Fontenot was en route to Louisiana when he radioed an emergency at about 9:05 a.m. local time. Air traffic controllers at Washington Center Air Traffic Control in Washington, D.C., then lost radio contact with the jet. The jet was flying between 30,000 and 40,000 feet when the pilot reported the emergency, Col. James Keefe, commander of the 104th Fighter Wing, told reporters at a news conference shortly after the crash.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and we are doing all we can to support them during this very difficult time,” Keefe said in a statement.
The two-day search for the pilot involved local, state and federal officials, including many on horseback, along with airmen on the ground, several helicopters and a HC-130 assigned to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. The search focused on an area of approximately nine square miles in a remote, heavily wooded area of the George Washington National Forest near Deerfield — about 170 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
Local residents said they heard loud bangs and saw smoke in the sky. Local officials reported finding a large area of smoldering wreckage on a mountainside.
Emergency officials searched the area until midnight on the first day, with the HC-130 joining the search about 3 a.m. Aug. 28. The HC-130 is the Air Force’s only dedicated fixed-wing personnel recovery aircraft, with equipment used to conduct search and rescue at night. The Moody HC-130 was assigned to the 71st Rescue Squadron.
Other aircraft included helicopters from local National Guard units and the Virginia State Police. About 10 teams worked on the ground searching logging roads, fire trails and forest roads.
The remote crash site was too hot on the first day as search teams, perhaps buoyed by a false report that a witness saw a parachute, scoured rough terrain both on foot and from the air. It wasn’t until the second day, when the heat from the wreckage had subsided, that investigators could get a closer look.
“At that time they discovered evidence that our pilot did not eject from the aircraft. We have transitioned from a search and rescue effort to a recovery operation,” Brooks said.
The Air Force has convened a Safety Investigation Board to investigate the crash.
An older fighter
Before this mishap, the Air Force had 213 F-15Cs in its inventory with an average fleet age of 30.3 years — the second oldest of the Air Force’s fighter fleet behind the 30.8-year-old F-15D variant. Despite the age, the fleet has kept a steady mission-capable rate of about 73 percent over the past two years, according to Air Force data.
The F-15C involved in this mishap was en route to Louisiana for a radar upgrade. The service is in the middle of upgrading the radars and targeting systems on the aircraft. It is installing active electronically scanned array radars, along with installing beyond-line-of-sight and secure line-of-sight radio updates and sniper advanced targeting pod integration on the aircraft.
First of 2014
The crash is the first fighter crash of 2014. The most recent previous F-15C mishap occurred May 28, 2013, when an F-15C crashed during a training mission out of Kadena Air Base, Japan. The aircraft, which was flying as part of a two-ship formation, crashed after the jet stopped responding to flight control inputs. The aircraft’s hydraulic, yaw and pitch control augmentation system warning lights came on and the aircraft began to spin. The pilot was able to safely eject and sustained minor injuries. The $32 million aircraft was destroyed.
The most recent Air Force fighter crash occurred Aug. 1, 2013, when two F-16s collided off the coast of Maryland. One pilot ejected safely, with the other pilot able to land following the collision.
The 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes has flown F-15Cs since 2007 after flying A-10 Thunderbolt IIs since 1979. The unit has deployed multiple times to both Iraq and Afghanistan with the A-10, and has flown alert missions with the F-15C.
The unit in June returned from a deployment to Malaysia for Exercise Cope Taufan, a biennal exercise with the Royal Malaysian Air Force. Pilots deployed for 11 days and trained with Malaysian MiG 29 Fulcrums and F-22s from the Hawaii Air National Guard.■
Brad Zinn of The (Staunton, Va.) News Leader contributed.