KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — An accident investigation board is probing the crash of an F-16 fighter jet in January off the coast of Italy in which the pilot was killed, according to officials at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
The body of Maj. Lucas Gruenther was found Jan. 31, three days after he and his F-16 Fighting Falcon went missing during a night training flight over the Adriatic Sea.
Members of the accident investigation board have been arriving at Aviano over the last few days, said 2nd Lt. Allie Delury, a base spokeswoman. Findings should be released within the next 60 to 90 days, a report that will include the board opinion about what caused the mishap, according to the Air Force.
Brig. Gen. Derek Rydholm, an F-16 pilot and the director of the Air Force Reserve Command’s Air, Space and Information Operations, has been selected as the board’s president, U.S. Air Forces in Europe officials said Friday.
Gruenther, who was 32 and days away from being a first-time father, was the chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano.
A separate safety investigation has already been completed, Delury said. Findings will be passed on to the accident investigation team and included in that board’s report, but will not be released before then.
More than 200 pieces of debris from Gruenther’s plane were retrieved by U.S. Navy divers last month, during a challenging salvage operation to recover wreckage of the F-16 from the sea, according to Aviano base officials.
“Everything they have found or not found is part of the” probe, Delury said.
Stateside Navy divers from Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2, Company 4, and airmen from Aviano worked aboard the USNS Grapple for more than two weeks to recover debris.
Four airmen assisted the divers by identifying pieces of wreckage retrieved from the water, including any materials that were potentially dangerous, Delury said.
Soft mud at the bottom of the sea reduced visibility significantly during the operation, the divers reported.
“We have overcome cold weather, bad sea state, mud and zero visibility,” Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Swartwood, one of the divers, was quoted in an Air Force news release as saying. “Although it has been difficult, we are trained to operate in these conditions.”
Despite these challenges, the company's divers and technicians "successfully recovered hundreds of pieces of debris demonstrating their professionalism and commitment to the mission," Cmdr. Michael Runkle, commanding officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, said in a written statement.
"While the loss of the pilot is tragic," Runkle continued, "we're honored to support the recovery of the wreckage, which will aid in the determination of the accident and help bring closure to the family."
Gruenther lost contact with the base and the rest of his flight formation during the Jan. 28 mission. American and Italian authorities launched a massive search-and-rescue effort to find Gruenther, a well-liked member of the Aviano and greater Air Force community. A memorial service at Aviano last month drew more than 1,000 people.
His wife, Cassy, gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Serene, on Feb. 7, according to a website his family set up in his name, www.lucasgruenther.com.
A funeral for Gruenther will be held on March 22 at Gruenther’s alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy, according to the site.