The pilot of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet that went down Tuesday during a training flight over Interior Alaska died in the crash, Col. Jack McMullen, commander of the Air Force's 3rd Wing, said Friday.
At a brief press conference on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where the plane was based, McMullen said evidence at the scene of the crash about 100 miles north of Anchorage and south of the Denali Highway, including pieces of Capt. Jeff Haney's flight suit and other personal effects, led investigators to the conclusion that he didn't survive. Part of the aircraft's ejection seat was also found at the scene.
"Sadly, we can no longer consider this a search and rescue operation but must now focus on recovery operations," McMullen said.
"We have not found the body yet or discovered any remains," he said.
The single-seat F-22 vanished from radar and broke off communications about an hour and 20 minutes into nighttime training maneuvers with another F-22, McMullen said.
"The weather was beautiful. It was a clear night, about 77 to 80 percent moon illumination," McMullen said at the press conference. "You could see the ground, you could see mountains, you could see the terrain. So it was a great night to fly airplanes."
McMullen said the planes were about 10 miles apart, with Haney's jet in front, as Haney was making a 180-degree turn to rejoin the other plane to fly home. They were passing each other about 2 miles apart when contact with Haney was lost.
An emergency locator transmitter would have been activated if the pilot had ejected but no such signal was detected, McMullen said.
The $143 million aircraft augured into the ground in a snow-covered valley between two mountains, he said.
An Air Force photograph of the crash scene taken from the air shows a crater surrounded by a darkened area.
"It looks like basically an 18- to 20-foot round hole, and it's got water, I don't know how much water is in it now, and it's starting to freeze over," McMullen said.
There was wreckage inside and out of the crater, McMullen said.
About 130 Air Force and Army personnel would continue searching for Haney's remains and gather evidence from the crash site, still a daunting task, base spokesman John Pennell said. Officials were uncertain how long military people and equipment would remain on the scene.
"We are really in the process now of determining how we're going to get the airplane and what type of equipment we need," McMullen said. "This is going to be a fairly long process."
McMullen said an interim investigation team was at the scene of the crash Friday. Recovery operations could take weeks, he said, and an investigation board would look at why the plane went down.
Searchers arrived at the crash site Friday afternoon after driving about 60 miles east from Cantwell on the closed-for-winter Denali Highway to a shuttered wilderness lodge about two miles past a bridge over the Susitna River. The lodge is serving as headquarters for the operation.
The two convoys driving north from Anchorage to Cantwell Thursday were stalled by snow and wind, Pennell said. A second convoy was en route Friday carrying the equivalent of four C-17 Globemaster loads full of supplies, according to the military. The C-17 can carry a maximum payload of 170,900 pounds, according to Boeing, its manufacturer.
To get to the lodge, the Army and Air Force had some help from the state Department of Transportation, which plowed a way through the snow on the gravel highway. The lodge is about 60 miles east of Cantwell a couple miles past the Susitna River.
"It's hard to put what we're doing into words," Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Jackson, Emergency Operations Center director, said in a release. "What we're doing is like building a small city of support to supply the site. We're setting up an airport and hotel in the middle of nowhere, essentially."
Search coordinators continued to watch the cold: Temperatures in the area dropped to 10 below zero Friday, with a wind chill of 20 below. Similar temperatures were expected Friday night, according to the National Weather Service.
Keeping their personnel fed and warm was a priority in the cold weather, Pennell said.
"Alaska can kill you pretty quick like that," Pennell said.
The Air Warrior Courage Foundations has set up an education fund for Haney's children, according to a statement from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson released Friday. Information on the fund is available from Capt. Tyler Ellison at 551-5250 or ellisonTM@hotmail.com.
Find Casey Grove online at adn.com/contact/casey.grove or call him at 257-4589.
According to the Air Force, there have been four emergency incidents with the Raptor or its prototypes, including three crashes, one of which was fatal.
• March 2009: An F-22 on a test flight crashed about 35 miles northeast of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The crash killed the pilot, a contractor for Lockheed Martin and a 21-years Air Force veteran. "Human factors associated with high gravitational forces," caused the crash, according to an accident investigation report.
• September 2007: Loaded with eight small-diameter bombs, an F-22 suffered a brief flameout of both of its engines while conducting a midair roll. Investigators blamed an incorrect trim setting. As a result of the power loss, air traffic controllers briefly lost telemetry signals from the jet.
• December 2004: An F-22 lost electrical power shortly after taking off from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The test pilot, a lieutenant colonel, survived after ejecting just before the jet flipped and skidded across the desert floor. The Air Force ceased F-22 flight operations for 18 days following the crash.
• April 1992: A prototype to the F-22, the YF-22, slammed into an Edwards Air Force Base runway, because of a low approach taken by the test pilot, who ejected safely.
By CASEY GROVE