DEERFIELD, Va. — Air National Guard officials have identified the pilot who died when his F-15 fighter jet crashed in western Augusta County as a decorated combat veteran and instructor pilot.
Debris discovered Thursday at the crash site after more than 30 hours of searching revealed that Lt. Col. Morris "Moose" Fontenot Jr., who served with the 104th Fighter Wing as the full-time wing inspector general, never managed to eject from the aircraft.
Fontenot was a decorated combat veteran with 17 years of experience flying F-15s,
The somber news was delivered during a late-night news conference at the Deerfield Volunteer Fire-Rescue, where roughly 150 searchers made their base during the two-day search for the pilot.
"Today was a tough day for the Massachusetts Air National Guard, as we learned we lost a great American, a warrior, a leader and most importantly a family member," said Brigadier General Robert Brooks of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
Fontenot, who was part of the 104th fighter Wing out of Westfield, Mass., 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.
The jet crashed shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday east of Deerfield near Bear Wallow Flat Lane. The single seat F-15C aircraft was en route to Naval Air Station New Orleans to receive a radar system upgrade, according to the pilot's unit.
Air Force investigators are expected to take several weeks piecing together details of the crash and its cause.
The remote crash site was too hot for Air Force investigators on Wednesday as search teams, perhaps buoyed by a false report that a witness saw a parachute, scoured miles of rough terrain both on foot and from the air. It wasn't until Thursday, when the heat from the wreckage had subsided, that investigators could get a closer look.
"At that time they discovered evidence that our pilot did not eject from the aircraft. We have transitioned from a search and rescue effort to a recovery operation," Brooks said.
The general said more than 30 agencies participated in the effort "to bring home our fallen airman."
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said during the course of the ongoing investigation that the U.S. Forestry Service will provide perimeter security for the Air Force at the site of the crash off Bear Wallow Flat Lane.
Contributing: The Associated Press