The Air Force is virtually certain that a missing A-10 attack plane crashed in a snow-swept wilderness area near Vail, Colo., and apparently has eliminated the possibility that the pilot was trying to steal the plane or its armaments, the Pentagon said Friday.
More than 20 people on the ground reported seeing puffs of smoke and hearing what sounded like an explosion in the area where the plane is thought to have gone down, said Maj. Gen. Donald L. Peterson, assistant deputy Air Force chief of staff.
But Air Force officials still have no idea why the pilot, Capt. Craig Button, broke off from a three-plane formation on a training mission in Arizona April 2 and flew almost 800 miles to the northeast. “I cannot say why he may have taken this action,” said Peterson, at a Pentagon briefing. “This is a little bit abnormal,” he said.
Peterson said Button, whom he described as an experienced pilot who regularly earned “above average” evaluations from superiors, almost surely was in control of the plane through the bizarre flight because the aircraft’s autopilot would not have been capable of flying such a track.
Since Button’s plane disappeared, the Air Force, Air National Guard and Civil Air Patrol have flown 185 search and rescue sorties using a variety of aircraft, ranging from helicopters to the once-secret U-2 spy plane. But weather in the search area has been extremely unfavorable, with 22 or 23 inches of new, wind-driven snow piling into drifts of up to 6 feet since the A-10 vanished, Peterson said.
Peterson said Button’s radar transponder was switched off in accordance with regulations that require only the lead plane in a formation to activate the equipment, which allows controllers to pinpoint aircraft location.
After breaking off from the formation, Button neither turned on his transponder nor responded to repeated attempts at radio contact. Nevertheless, by combining a painstaking search of passive radar “hits” and reports of eyewitness sightings of the distinctive two-jet aircraft, the Air Force tracked the plane to the vicinity of New York Mountain. Button would have had enough fuel for no more than five minutes of additional flight at the time of the last known sighting, Peterson said.
There are two airports in the vicinity that could have accommodated the A-10, Peterson said, but there is no way to know if the 33-year-old pilot was trying to reach one of them at the time the plane went down.
Warplanes are equipped with beacons designed to guide rescuers to downed pilots. But the beacon is in the plane’s ejection seat, Peterson said, and it is activated only if the pilot bails out. Button apparently did not do that.
The A-10, which the Air Force calls the Thunderbolt but pilots refer to as the Warthog because it is tough, deadly, ungainly and ugly, carried four 500-pound bombs. Peterson said it is unlikely that they exploded because the weapons will not detonate unless armed by the pilot.
Nevertheless, Peterson said, the downed plane could be extremely dangerous.
Cable News Network reported Friday that Air Force officials were looking into a theory that Button deliberately flew his jet into the Rockies. The network said that Button appeared despondent after a visit by his parents in March and that his mother recently had adopted an anti-war religious faith.