Searchers used metal detectors Wednesday to help them look for potentially dangerous munitions buried on a snowy mountainside where an Air Force warplane crashed, but they found no trace of the four 500-pound bombs the plane carried.
The focus was on a debris field about 600 feet below the spot on Gold Dust Peak where A-10 attack jet crashed in April. Three days of searching have reaped bits of ammunition, parts of the plane’s hydraulic system and remains of the pilot, Capt. Craig Button.
But there has been no sign of the bombs. Searchers used the metal detectors for the first time Wednesday, hoping the heavy, general-purpose bombs lay beneath the snow surface. The snow depth on Gold Dust Peak ranges from 2 feet to 15 feet.
“I would estimate they might have gotten 8 or 10 percent today (of the debris field),” said Brig. Gen. Donald Streater, referring to searchers’ work with the metal detectors.
Streater showed off a large portion of one of the plane’s bomb racks that was recovered, but noted it was one of 11 racks on the plane and was not carrying a bomb when Button veered away from a training mission April 2.
The Air Force is planning to spend three weeks searching the mountain, but the wreckage site on Gold Dust Peak may remain closed to the public for much longer.
“I would say the area will definitely be closed this summer season,” said Forest Service District Ranger Anne E. Huebner, who oversees the Holy Cross Wilderness where the A-10 went down.
The Air Force’s aim is to make the site safe, said Maj. Joseph LaMarca. Cleanup of most of the debris will be contracted to a private firm.
“We’re not here to clean the site up. … We’re here to find the things that could hurt people,” he said.
The Air Force will remove any dangerous munitions or potentially harmful bomb pieces.
How much of the 5-square-mile, no-trespassing zone around the crash site remains off limits, and for how long, depends on how much the Air Force accomplishes, Huebner said.
“It really depends on what ordnance is left up there,” she said.
Even if the cleanup is complete, it’s unlikely the area will be 100 percent safe, Huebner said.
“I don’t think they are going to be able to account for every one of the (500) 30-mm munitions,” she said. “We would probably still probably have the area marked as ‘hazardous’ on signs on the trails heading into the area.”
On Wednesday, Streater also showed off one of the largest pieces recovered - the A-10’s forward-mounted Gatling cannon.
Only four of its seven barrels remained. Each was bent backwards.
The longest surviving barrel was 5 feet long; they were 8 feet long before the crash.
Since the cannon was mounted in the plane’s nose section, investigators hope it might provide clues about the impact - such as whether the plane was nose-up or nose-down when it flew into the rock wall about 500 feet below the summit.
Button’s plane, which veered off from a training mission in Arizona, was the subject of an 18-day search in April, but wintry conditions on 12,500-foot Gold Dust Peak forced the Air Force to wait for summer to retrieve the wreckage. Enough human remains were found at that time, however, to confirm that Button went down with his plane.