The pilot killed in the crash of an F-15 jet this week in the remote Virginia mountains was a decorated combat veteran with 17 years of experience flying the planes, military officials in Massachusetts said Friday.
The pilot, Lt. Col. Morris "Moose" Fontenot Jr., joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard in February and had been serving with the 104th Fighter Wing as the inspector general and an F-15 instructor pilot.
Col. James Keefe, the fighter wing's commander, said the death was announced "with a sense of profound sadness."
Fontenot was flying the single-seat plane to New Orleans for a radar system upgrade when he crashed Wednesday in western Virginia. Officials say he reported an in-flight emergency before losing radio contact. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Fontenot was a 1996 Air Force Academy graduate. Officials in Massachusetts said his active-duty career included deployments to the Middle East, and he earned honors including the Meritorious Service Medal.
More than 100 local, state and federal officials were involved in the search for the pilot before officials announced Thursday night they had found evidence he did not survive. Brig. Gen. Robert Brooks, Commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, said at a news conference in Deerfield, Virginia, that rescuers found evidence at the crash site that the pilot did not eject.
Brooks would not comment on whether the pilot's remains had been found, saying only, "We bring every airman home."
The jet crash shook residents but caused no injuries on the ground. Investigators said the jet hit the ground at high speed, leaving a deep crater and a large debris field in a heavily wooded area adjacent to a mountain in the George Washington National Forest.
There were no munitions aboard at the time of the crash, Keefe said. The plane was flying at about 30,000 to 40,000 feet when the pilot reported the emergency, he said.
F-15s are maneuverable tactical fighters that can reach speeds as high as 1,875 mph, according to the Air Force website. The F-15C Eagle entered the Air Force inventory in 1979 and costs nearly $30 million, the website says. The Air Force has nearly 250 F-15s.
Several F-15s have crashed over the past few years in various states. In at least one, the pilot ejected safely. Causes included failure of a support structure for the jet and pilot error.