Two military convoys heading north from Anchorage with troops and equipment and planning to scour some of Alaska's most rugged wilderness for signs of a lost F-22 pilot ran into driving snow, slowing them enough that they had to hunker down in Cantwell for the night.
The group hoped to set up a base camp Friday at a closed wilderness lodge about 60 miles east of Cantwell on the Denali Highway before starting a ground search for the pilot, who may have ejected from the stealth fighter jet that crashed Tuesday night during a routine training flight, a spokesman for Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson said.
Dozens of Army and Air Force personnel and vehicles will be involved in what base spokesman John Pennell called a "huge logistical operation," with hundreds more men and women supporting the ground and air search for the missing pilot.
Military public affairs officials identified the pilot late Thursday as Capt. Jeffrey Haney, who is assigned to the 525th Fighter Squadron. Haney has a wife and two daughters, according to the Jackson Citizen Patriot, his mother's hometown newspaper in Michigan.
The last time anyone heard from Haney was when his F-22 Raptor separated from a companion F-22 Tuesday night an hour and 20 minutes into a night training flight, according to 3rd Wing Commander Col. Jack McMullen. Just before the two planes were set to rejoin and head for home, Haney's jet vanished from radar and lost contact with his wingman at about 7:40 p.m., McMullen said.
There was no sign of the plane until the next morning, when crewmen aboard an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter spotted wreckage.
"They said it looked like a crater," said Maj. Guy Hayes with the Guard's Rescue Coordination Center. "There was a stream nearby that was creating a lot of water in the crash site." The crater is in a drainage between two mountains and had partially filled with water, Hayes said.
A rescue team that spent several hours looking around near the wreckage turned up no sign of the pilot, Hayes said. There was also no indication whether the pilot had ejected or not, Pennell said.
Before pararescuers could land at the site, they had to get the right gear to protect themselves from the possibility of hazardous materials from the crashed plane, Hayes said. It's normal to expect fuel and other hazardous materials after a crash, he said.
The Air Force reported to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that the jet held about 1,343 gallons of jet fuel and about 100 pounds of lubricants, hydraulic fluid and other miscellaneous fluids, the DEC said. An early report indicated that there was no significant spill threatening the environment, but it was likely too early to tell, said John Brown with the DEC's Spill Prevention and Response Division.
Pennell, the military spokesman, said the plane was not carrying explosives but did have flares and chaff onboard, as well as some training rounds.
The general airspace the planes were using is called the Fox 3 Military Operations Area, a square patch of more than 3 million acres bisected by the Denali Highway.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction Thursday to keep private pilots out of a circular area 40 miles wide and centered near Deadman Mountain. Most of the area is southwest of where crews hoped to set up a staging area at a shuttered wilderness lodge.
The owner of the Susitna Lodge -- about 60 miles east of Cantwell on the Denali Highway and roughly two miles east of where the highway crosses the Susitna River -- said searchers could use the outpost as their base camp, Pennell said. Behind the lodge sits a 2,000-foot runway they'd also be using, Pennell said.
The state Department of Transportation plowed snow from the highway, a 134-mile mostly gravel road that runs east from near the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve to Paxson on the Richardson Highway. The DOT also plowed the airstrip.
Search teams will use helicopters, small-track vehicles and four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles to shuttle people into the wilderness, he said. Wrecker vehicles, forklifts and a bus loaded with people were also en route, Pennell said.
"You're talking hundreds of moving parts, including people. Getting the right people with the right equipment to the right place at the right time," Pennell said. "The logistics are really pretty staggering. You know what Alaska's like. The area's remote, it's rugged, and it's pretty inaccessible."
Alaska Air National Guard helicopters and a four-engine plane continued to search for signs of a fire or the pilot's parachute, Maj. Hayes said.
"We're going to proceed in thinking he's alive until we have a strong reason to believe he might not be," Hayes said.
Temperatures in the area dipped to below zero both Tuesday and Wednesday night and were expected to drop to as low as 15 below Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service.
The pilot would have had survival gear and cold-weather training, McMullen said. McMullen and much of the local Air Force community were holding out hope that the pilot would be found alive, he said.
"We have to assume that he's still alive until we find conclusively otherwise," Pennell said. "We're not going to give up on him. As long as there's hope, we're going to continue looking."
There has been an outpouring of support for the pilot's family, Pennell said.
"In a situation like this, the military family pulls together, so they are fully ensconced in support right now," he said.
Find Casey Grove online at adn.com/contact/casey.grove or call him at 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE