Radar reports and hundreds of eyewitness sightings suggest a highly regarded pilot was in control of his bomb-laden A-10 warplane when it vanished deep in the Colorado Rockies, the Air Force says.
Despite an intensive, nine-day search for Capt. Craig Button and his Thunderbolt aircraft, Air Force officials say they don’t know where the pilot and airplane are. They’re also at a loss to explain his actions.
But reports of “explosion, noise and smoke,” on a snowy mountain in central Colorado have searchers still looking, Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Peterson said at Pentagon briefing Friday.
After piecing together radar reports covering four states and hundreds of eyewitness sightings, Peterson said the jet broke away from a three-plane formation during a flight exercise on April 2 over Arizona. It flew almost 800 miles deep into the Rockies until it would have nearly run out of fuel.
“I cannot say why he may have taken this action,” said Peterson, the Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for air and space.
Some 185 flights by dozens of aircraft ranging from U-2 spy planes to Army helicopters have searched for the 32-year-old pilot. Even satellites have been used, but nothing has turned up, Peterson said.
Cross-country skiers in the area have reported hearing an explosion, but ground searchers have been unable to get into the area, even using snowmobiles, because of the danger of avalanches in the resort area.
A military official said Friday night that Air Force infrared surveillance technology offered an indication that the plane could have gone down in the area where the explosion was heard.
“It did, in fact, pick up something,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But he cautioned that the surveillance system is new and has not been fully tested.
Peterson said the Air Force was operating under the assumption that Button could still be alive. He said witnesses reported seeing the A-10 “tank killer,” easily recognized by its rear-mounted engines and twin tails, dropping through a break in the clouds.
The plane appears to have flown a zigzagged path near Aspen and Eagle, Colo. “We had a number of reports of explosion, noise and smoke” in a wilderness area near New York Mountain in Eagle County, where Vail and several other ski resorts are located.
Button was graded above average by his commander, Peterson said. He said he could not speculate as to whether Button had any personal problems or other reason to fly to the area - or to take his own life.
“I wouldn’t speculate on family affairs here,” Peterson said.
A senior Air Force official said the Air Force was looking into a theory that Button deliberately flew his jet into the Rockies. CNN said Button, a Mormon, appeared despondent after his parents visited him in March, and that his mother had recently adopted an anti-war religious faith.
However, Button’s father has said repeatedly his son was in good health, pleased with his assignment, “well-balanced and happy.”