The commander of the Air Force's 3rd Wing was holding out hope Wednesday that the pilot of an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet that disappeared on a night training flight Tuesday is still alive.
Col. Jack McMullen said the pilot could have ejected and, if so, was equipped and trained to survive the cold in the region 100 miles north of Anchorage, where searchers believe they located wreckage of the aircraft Wednesday morning.
The plane carries one pilot. The Air Force has not released the pilot's name.
"We're still doing an active search to find the pilot," McMullen said. "Obviously, this is an emotional time for the families as we work through this."
Pararescuemen from the Alaska Air National Guard scoured the crash site Wednesday until being flown out for the night. "There's no sign of the pilot at this point, from what I've been told," guard spokesman Maj. Guy Hayes said.
Search aircraft, however, planned to remain in the area overnight searching for the pilot, according to the Alaska Air National Guard.
Temperatures in the area had dipped to 4 below by Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service.
The pilot would have been equipped with survival gear and a beacon, but the beacon could have been damaged, McMullen said.
"The big thing they have is survival gear," McMullen said. "He's Arctic-trained to survive in that environment. He's got the gear on. He's got the stuff in the survival kit so that he can hunker himself down and fight the extreme cold."
As McMullen spoke at a brief news conference Wednesday afternoon, searchers were trying to find a way to land a helicopter at the wreckage site, he said.
Few new details were available after the news conference and it was unclear late Wednesday if the helicopter had in fact reached the crash site.
The airplane, which is assigned to Elmendorf's 3rd Wing, disappeared during a flight with another F-22 out of Elmendorf-Richardson Tuesday night.
The pair had been flying for about an hour and 20 minutes, McMullen said, and had separated as part of the training maneuvers. They were preparing to rejoin and head home when the one aircraft disappeared from radar at about 7:40 p.m., he said.
The rejoin is "a fairly benign thing we do every day when we're flying," McMullen said.
The remaining F-22, which also lost contact with the missing fighter jet at about the same time, refueled with an air tanker and continued to search for the missing plane, to no avail, McMullen said. That's when the search by the Alaska Air National Guard began, he said.
McMullen said he assumed the terrain where the plane is thought to have gone down is rugged. Asked if Tuesday night's high winds in the region might have affected the flight, he said it would have been normal for an F-22 to fly in such winds.
"It was a little bit windy, but that's not going to affect the aircraft in the air," McMullen said.
According to the National Weather Service, the highest wind in the area Tuesday night was recorded at about 30 mph at 8 p.m., though the nearest weather station failed to record for several hours overnight. The temperature the next day registered 9 below zero at 6 a.m., the Weather Service said.
Search efforts Wednesday morning focused southeast of Cantwell near the eastern boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve, according to the Alaska Air National Guard, which was coordinating the search effort.
The search, run through the Air Guard's Rescue Coordination Center, involved pararescuemen onboard HH-60 helicopters and an HC-130 four-engine plane, assisted by refueling air tankers.
Searchers returned to base for a rest between 3 and 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Air National Guard said. Search efforts resumed at 8 a.m.
They conducted the search by separating the area into grids they then looked at using a systematic approach, according to Alaska Air National Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp. Rupp did not know the size of the search area.
The wreckage that is thought to be the missing F-22 was spotted about 10:15 a.m.
The general airspace the planes were flying is called the Fox 3 Military Operations Area, a square patch of more than 3 million acres between Anchorage and Fairbanks, according to the Air Force. Maps show that the area is bisected by the Denali Highway.
Base public affairs officers could not give a narrower description for the crash site or provide the names of any landmarks near where they think the Raptor went down.
The twin-engine F-22 comes with a price tag of $143 million, according to the Pentagon.
F-22s first arrived at Elmendorf in August 2007 after entering service in the mid-2000s.
The jet is more maneuverable, stealthier and faster than earlier jets and can cruise at more than 1.5 times the speed of sound without using its afterburner, according to the Air Force. Its top speed is confidential.
Congress last year stopped production of the plane, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., by eliminating $1.75 billion that would have added seven F-22s to the Air Force's fleet, according to The Associated Press.
An F-22 crashed in March 2009 near Edwards Air Force Base in California, killing the pilot. The next most recent crash of a Raptor occurred in 2007 at Edwards and was caused by a dual-engine flameout, according to Flightglobal.com, an aviation news website.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.