The Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing launched at least two F-16 Fighting Falcons on Wednesday to join the search for one of its pilots missing since late Monday, according to wing officials.
Officials did not say how many of their fighters would ultimately join in the effort, citing security reasons.
The fighters join Italian and U.S. aircraft and ships searching for Capt. Lucas Gruenther, the wing’s chief of flight safety, whose F-16 disappeared over the Adriatic during a night training mission.
Weather and the size of the search area limited the wing’s ability to assist earlier, wing commander Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist said in a statement, but the search area has been narrowed enough to allow the fighters to aid in the effort.
“While not a reconnaissance aircraft like the other aircraft already involved in the search, our F-16s have targeting pods which can be used to augment the search,” Zobrist said in the statement.
“The biggest focus now is, ‘Let’s do what we can, while we can,’” Maj. Erick Saks, a wing spokesman, said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “As of right now, it is still a search and rescue operation,” not a recovery operation.
The last known contact with the aircraft was around 8 p.m. Monday, when it was approximately 10-15 nautical miles off the coast of Cervia, Saks said earlier. That would be about 150 miles south of Aviano Air Base, where the wing is based.
Temperatures in Cervia were hovering around 37 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday afternoon, according to Weather.com and were expected to drop to slightly above freezing during the night.
Saks said pilots go through training “that helps them to know how to survive in situations, including situations such as this.”
And “they do have specific gear to help them survive should an aircraft go down over the water,” Saks said. “As far as exactly how long can somebody last or what the gear is, we can’t go into those kind of specifics” because even though it was a training mission, the gear is similar to what would have been used on a combat mission.
The wing did not provide any personal details on Gruenther. But a report from the Modesto Bee newspaper said he’s a native of Tuolumne County in Northern California and attended Summerville High School. It said his wife is pregnant with the couple’s first child.