DEERFIELD, Va. – An experienced pilot was missing Wednesday after the flier's F-15 fighter jet crashed in the mountains of western Virginia, shaking residents but causing no injuries on the ground, military and law enforcement officials said.
The pilot of the single-seat jet was headed to New Orleans for radar installation as part of routine maintenance and reported an inflight emergency, then lost radio contact, authorities said. The pilot and jet are with the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, officials there said.
It was unclear whether the pilot had ejected and the plane had no munitions onboard, Col. James Keefe said at a news conference in Westfield, Massachusetts, home of the fighter wing.
Just before 9 a.m., residents near Deerfield – with a population of just 130 people, about 135 miles northwest of Richmond – said they heard a series of explosion-like booms.
"It's the loudest noise I've ever heard," 63-year-old Rebecca Shinaberry, who lives on a farm about two miles away, said. "[It] just shook the ground, and from my house we could just see a big plume of smoke."
Her husband, turkey farmer A.D. Shinaberry, said that from the first two booms, he thought a plane had broken the sound barrier. But 10 seconds later he heard a third boom – the crash, he said.
Then, "it was like a mushroom, black smoke came up," Shinaberry said.
From the smoke, Virginia State Police said, they located the crash site, in a heavily wooded but level area adjacent to a mountain in the George Washington National Forest.
A deep crater and a large debris field are on the site, and state police are searching, spokeswoman Corrine Geller said.
"It is probably five, six miles from the crash site to the nearest civilization," Keefe said. "It's deeply wooded, and a lot of hills and mountains."
"We are not going to speculate on what occurred or the status of the pilot," Keefe said. "We are hopeful that the pilot is OK."
A massive rescue operation was underway in the rural area with rocky, steep terrain. More than 100 dozen local, state, and federal officials as well as volunteers gathered at the Deerfield Volunteer Fire Department. About a dozen helicopters from various agencies were used through the day to search. The aircraft were constantly taking off and landing throughout the day.
Geller said later Wednesday rescuers on foot and horseback would search through the night, assisted by search dogs and helicopters equipped for night flying.
Keefe said the plane was flying about 30,000 to 40,000 feet – "pretty high" – when the pilot reported the emergency. Pilots are trained to release equipment when ejecting, Keefe said, so it was likely the pilot did not have a radio.
F-15s are maneuverable tactical fighters that can reach speeds up to 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 said. 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.