By jrichgels

Crews searched Wednesday for the pilot of a Madison-based F-16 Fighting Falcon jet that crashed Tuesday night in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during a scheduled training exercise.

It was not known if the pilot, with the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing at Truax Field, ejected from the aircraft just prior to it crashing about 15 miles northwest of Manistique, Michigan, and 250 miles from Madison at around 8 p.m.

“The status of the pilot is still unknown,” Capt. Leslie Westmont, of the state Department of Military Affairs, told the State Journal on Wednesday.

Westmont said the 115th Fighter Wing participated in a coordinated search effort with local emergency responders, the U.S. Coast Guard and other government agencies shortly after the crash and through Wednesday on the ground, in the air and in the water. The crash site, located in Delta County, Michigan, was initially secured by local emergency responders, but “military personnel and safety and security personnel from the 115th Fighter Wing are now on site,” Westmont said.

Additional personnel were scheduled to be sent to the area to help facilitate the safety and security of the crash site, which Delta County Sheriff Ed Oswald said is in the county’s northeastern corner in a rural area within Hiawatha National Forest. Oswald said the area is “very remote with no cellphone service.”

The closest community to the crash site is the small village of Steuben, in adjacent Schoolcraft County, Oswald said.

The search also included the Civil Air Patrol and, according to reports, a specially equipped Air Force KC-135.

“We are a close knit family and when an incident like this occurs, every member in our organization feels it,” said Col. Bart Van Roo, commander of the 115th Fighter Wing. “The safety of our pilot along with search and rescue efforts are our top priority, and we will continue to pray for the pilot’s safe return.”

Officials have not said if they know what caused the aircraft to crash. The temperature in the area of the crash was in the mid-40s Wednesday with an expected low of 29 degrees by early Thursday morning.

Alice Sabuco lives on the north side of Mahskeekee Lake in a heavily wooded but flat area of the Hiawatha National Forest north of Highway 2 and about 15 miles northwest of Manistique, Michigan. Sabuco said Michigan State Police, the Department of Natural Resources and other search crews were in the area Wednesday morning along with heavy equipment and may have been headed toward Stevens Lake, about five miles to the north. She also spotted a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flying overhead “doing an almost grid search.”

Sabuco said it’s common for fighter jets to fly overhead but she and her husband did not hear a crash Tuesday evening. However, two neighbors across the lake said they heard a “big boom and rumble,” she said.

“It was about 8 p.m. and all of a sudden all of these jets just started going over maybe 20 (to) 25 times … over our place and the woods right behind us,” Sabuco told the State Journal by phone Wednesday morning. “I hope the pilot made it. If he ejected behind us, there’s tons of small and large lakes. If you came down with a parachute in all these trees you could be stuck in a 100-foot tree.”

Evers’ statement

Gov. Tony Evers, in a statement Wednesday morning, said he was “devastated” to learn of the crash.

“As search and rescue operations continue, Kathy and I are hoping and praying for the pilot’s safe return,” Evers said. “Our hearts go out to pilot’s family as well as the members of the 115th Fighter Wing as they continue working to bring the pilot home.”

The crash occurred on the second of four consecutive days of training operations scheduled to conclude Thursday, according to a post Sunday on the 115th Fighter Wing’s Facebook page.

“Area residents may see or hear F-16 fighter jets taking off or landing until approximately 10:00 p.m. Training flights normally take place during daylight hours, but pilots and maintenance personnel are required to conduct evening/nighttime operations as part of their overall readiness. Pilots will follow flight paths designed to minimize noise to area residents,” the post said.

According to the 115th Fighter Wing’s website, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is a “compact, multi-role” fighter aircraft with an “all-weather capability” that allows it to deliver ordnance during non-visual bombing conditions.

The $15 million aircraft has a range of more than 2,000 miles, can fly at speeds of up to 1,500 mph and has a flight ceiling of 50,000 feet.

Other crashes

The crash is third of an F-16 from the 115th Fighter Wing in 25 years.

In 2011, a pilot, who had taken off from Volk Field near Camp Douglas, ejected over Adams County before his F-16 slammed into a vacant vacation home near Oxford. The pilot escaped with minor injuries, and nobody on the ground was hurt. However, the incident resulted in training flights being grounded to ensure there was nothing wrong with fuel, procedures or equipment that could cause a repeat of the crash.

In 1995, a plane piloted by John Wasserburger, who was on a training exercise over northwest Wisconsin, had his engine stall. He pulled the jet up to gain altitude and give himself more time to try to restart the engine. But as the jet slowed and began to fall, he had to bail out. Just before ejecting, he pointed the jet’s nose down to minimize the distance it would travel before crashing into woods south of Eau Claire.

“It makes a pretty loud shudder, and then you get almost every warning light on in the cockpit,” Wasserburger told the State Journal in 2011. “Everything happens pretty quick.”

The Air Force announced in April that Truax will receive a fleet of 18 new F-35 fighter planes to replace its 21 aging F-16s in 2023. Madison residents who live near the base have complained that the new jets will be so loud they won’t be able to live in their homes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.