Status of F-16 pilot unknown

By Tonya Fennell: CNJ staff writer

The pilot of a Cannon Air Force Base F-16 fighter jet that crashed Monday in Iraq is still missing, Air Force officials said.

The pilot was not found at the crash site, the Air Force said. The Air Force has not identified the pilot nor said to which base or unit the pilot was assigned. Cannon officials said the pilot was not stationed at Cannon.

An interim safety investigation board has collected DNA samples from the crash site and will release results when the testing is done, the Air Force said.

The jet crashed at 3:30 a.m. New Mexico time Monday about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad while participating in air and ground combat operations, according to military officials.

Coalition reconnaissance and fighter aircraft were overhead when the crash occurred and confirmed insurgents were near the crash site immediately following the impact, the Air Force said. As soon as the extensive ground combat operations in the area ended Monday, ground forces secured the crash scene.

The F-16 was home-based with the 27th Fighter Wing at Cannon. Cannon’s 524th Fighter Squadron is deployed to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Cannon has more than 600 people deployed to various places, Cannon Public Information officer Capt. Rebecca Garcia said Tuesday. She said the base does not release specifics of how many people are in Iraq.

Garcia said it is common for pilots to fly with squadrons to which they are not assigned in order to maintain their flight status active.

Under such agreements, a pilot would fly aircraft belonging to the host squadron and would support the mission of that squadron, she said.

“(Squadrons) have these agreements and these are very common practices,” Garcia said.

An interim safety investigation board convened by U.S. Central Command Air Forces has begun to gather evidence to determine what caused the crash, the Air Force said.

Capt. Tiffany Payette of the Central Command Air Force Public Affairs office said the primary concern of the Air Force is the safety of the coalition forces and the recovery of the pilot.

An Iraqi witness reported seeing the jet flying up and down erratically before it crashed.

Iraqi insurgents said they shot down the F-16 with a shoulder-fired Strela anti-aircraft missile.

If the F-16 was shot down, it would be the first combat loss of an Air Force Fighter since April 7, 2003, when an F-15E Strike Eagle went down near Tikrit, killing the two crew members.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, said he doubted the jet was shot down because F-16s have not encountered weapons in
Iraq that are capable of
taking them down.

Cannon has lost seven F-16s in crashes since 1997, according to newspaper records.

The last crash involving an F-16 from Cannon was Sept. 10, 2002, about 50 miles west of the base during a routine training mission. The pilot was killed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.