AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va.-A fighter jet from a Massachusetts Air National Guard unit crashed into a mountain near Elliot Knob in Augusta County on Wednesday morning, leaving a plume of heavy smoke and a wide field of debris.
The crash happened in a remote area of the George Washington National Forest, off Cold Spring Road, and the pilot's whereabouts were unknown in the early afternoon.
The jet was an F-15C "Eagle" from the Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Wing based in Westfield, Massachusetts. At the base's 2 p.m. press conference, a colonel said normal procedure in a wooded area is to release your equipment -- meaning the pilot, if he or she ejected, would not have his radio.
More equipment and personnel are coming to help look for the pilot, said Col. James Keefe. The pilot contacted radio control at 9:05 a.m. and was at a high altitude when he or she discovered there was a problem with the plane.
The colonel said the F-15C jet isn't typically an intense combat jet and doesn't usually see problems or crashes.
"I can't even tell you the last time we had a mishap in the F-15C model," Keefe said. This jet was en route to New Orleans to get a new radar system.
Witnesses reported to the sheriff's department that they saw a parachute in the air near the scene, which could indicate that the pilot ejected before impact. No one on the ground was injured, and there was no report of damage to structures on the ground.
The aircraft crashed after 9 a.m. in an area northwest of Elliot Knob and northeast of Deerfield, according to the Virginia State Police.
Witnesses described a frightful explosion.
"I literally woke up to feeling it crash … scary," Ashley-Brandon Brown said on Facebook.
Todd Shiflett was working on a house and saw what he said was a jet plane go down near Hodges Draft.
Vince Wood was working on a house in Deerfield when he heard and felt one boom. After a silence, he heard another boom, Wood said.
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At about that time, the 104th Fighter Wing received a report of an in-flight emergency from the F15-C just before losing radio contact with it, according to a release from Barnes Air National Guard Base, home of the 104th Wing.
Col. James Keefe, 104th Fighter Wing Commander, said in a release: "We are hopeful that the pilot is ok, and the pilot will be in our thoughts and prayers as the events of this incident unfold."
The jet is a one-seater and was on a cross-country mission over the Shenandoah Valley for a system upgrade. No munitions were on board, the release said.
Local emergency crews rushed to the scene in the national forest.
"I'm on location, with smoke, and we do have debris," said a breathless responder on emergency radio frequencies at 10:04 a.m. "I got debris everywhere... I haven't located anybody."
A witness told authorities they saw an ejection from the jet and a parachute, according to scanner traffic.
The crash site is wooded and sparsely-populated national forest area. About 1 million acres of the George Washington Forest lies within Virginia, covering 29 percent of Augusta County.
Besides the State police, the Deerfield Fire and Rescue Department, the Augusta County Sheriff's Office and the FBI were among the agencies who responded to the scene. Search dogs and helicopters were deployed to look for the pilot.
The 104th Fighter Wing employs over 700 traditional guardsmen and more than 300 technicians. The unit supports Air Force wartime efforts, and organizes, trains and equips personnel to provide an operationally ready squadron to the Air Combat Command.