KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing will hold a memorial service Wednesday to honor an F-16 pilot who died last week during a training exercise off the Italian coast.
The service for Maj. Lucas Gruenther is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Aviano Air Base’s Hangar 3.
Gruenther, a 2003 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, went missing Jan. 28 while taking part in a night training mission in his F-16 Fighting Falcon over the Adriatic Sea, sparking a massive search by American and Italian authorities.
On Tuesday, searchers recovered debris believed to be from the missing jet, including Gruenther’s helmet, which was reportedly in good condition, and his drogue parachute.
Those discoveries prompted Gruenther’s family to issue a statement late Wednesday expressing optimism the 32-year-old from Twain Harte, Calif., would be found alive.
“If anyone could survive something like this, it would be Luc,” his wife Cassy said, according to the statement. She described her husband as a sky diver, rock climber, certified scuba diver and a self-reliant outdoorsman “who would sleep every night under the stars if he could.”
But less than 24 hours later, Italian search crews returned to Italy’s east shore with crushing news.
“It is with great sadness that we announce that the body of Captain Lucas Gruenther was found in the Adriatic Sea this afternoon,” read a second statement from Gruenther’s family, which noted his rank at the time of death.
Gruenther, who was selected for promotion to major last year, was promoted posthumously, according to wing officials.
Gruenther’s family has set up a website in his name, www.lucasgruenther.com, which includes a statement saying: “Cassy would love to receive letters telling stories of how they know Lucas so that she can share them with Serene when she is older and she will know who her father is,” referring to the couple’s unborn daughter.
The site also includes links for memorial fund donations and to a remembrance wall, which by Monday afternoon had more than 50 messages from friends and stangers.
“Luc came out to visit me at my FOB [forward operating base] in Afghanistan last year,” Chris Carden posted on the wall. “We talked about jets and family and he shared your dreams about travelling the world and maybe doing a study program in the south of France. He like us couldn’t see the whole picture back then or have any idea about what the next year would bring, but now he knows all the reasons why.”