AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Italian search teams have recovered debris believed to be from a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon that went missing Monday night while flying over the Adriatic Sea, according to the 31st Fighter Wing.

A massive search-and-rescue operation to find the pilot, Capt. Lucas Gruenther, was still under way as darkness fell Tuesday.

Gruenther, the Wing's chief of flight safety, was conducting a night training mission when the base lost contact with him at about 8 p.m. Monday, according to a Wing news release.

The last known contact with the aircraft was approximately 10-15 nautical miles off the coast of Cervia, said Maj. Erick Saks, chief of public affairs for the Wing. That would be about 150 miles south of Aviano.

Tuesday afternoon, the Wing reported that Italian search teams had recovered debris believe to be from the missing plane.

Aviano Air Base, located a few minutes’ flight from the Adriatic, doesn’t have recovery aircraft of its own, Saks said. So the initial effort was mostly Italian.

An Air Force HC-130 from U.S. Africa Command, as well as a rotation of Navy P-3s from U.S. Naval Forces Europe joined the search Tuesday, the wing said.

"We are dedicating all available resources to the search and rescue operation," Wing commander Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist said in a statement. "I'm grateful to the many Italian and U.S. professionals who are executing this mission. I am hopeful that we will bring him home safely.”

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Gruenther and his family," Zobrist said.

American and Italian personnel were coordinating rescue efforts through the night.

“We’ll continue to operate day and night until we can rescue the pilot or determine what happened,” Saks said.

“Within the first hour, we had ships heading out there, both military and civilian. We’ve got fishing boats out there. The response has been amazing,” Saks said.

“F-16s never fly alone, so it was part of a formation,” Saks said. But he declined to discuss what another pilot or pilots might have observed. “That’s going to all be a part of the investigation.”

The U.S. pilot signaled a “problem” but did not specify what it was and then communications were lost, officials from Aviano reportedly told Italian wire service ANSA.

But Saks said the U.S. and Italian air forces had not released any information regarding possible “chatter” between the F-16 and the base or other aircraft.

ANSA also reported that traces of jet fuel were found at the port of Ravenna. Saks said he could neither confirm nor deny that report.

While other aicraft continued to fly in and out of Aviano Tuesday, Saks said no F-16s would be flying. “Right now, we’re completely focused on rescuing the pilot,” he said.

Night missions are far less common than day missions at Aviano, Saks said, but not rare.

Monday’s incident was the latest in a handful involving aircraft assigned to the base over the past two decades.

The most notable one occurred on Feb. 3, 1998, when a Marine EA-6B Prowler severed a cable supporting a ski gondola near Cavalese. The gondola plummeted to the ground, killing 20 onboard. The jet returned safely to base and a court martial found the crew was not at fault.

Staff writers Charlie Reed and Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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