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Air Force: F-15 pilot in Va. forest crash was incapacitated

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A decorated combat veteran who died in an F-15 crash in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia was incapacitated and unable to eject, according to an Air Force investigation released Monday.

Lt. Col. Morris “Moose” Fontenot Jr., a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was killed in the Aug. 27 crash near Deerfield, about 135 miles northwest of Richmond.

The investigation by Air Combat Command says Fontenot was incapacitated during a rapid descent, rendering him unable to recover or eject from the aircraft. The report says the investigative board didn’t have enough evidence to pinpoint why Fontenot was incapacitated.

“With no eyewitness accounts, surviving aircrew members, detailed emergency calls, or flight data recordings, and with minimal information from analysis of components recovered at the mishap site, the specific reason (Fontenot) became incapacitated could not be determined,” the report says.

At the time of the crash, Fontenot was flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans so the aircraft could receive a radar upgrade. The day before the flight, Fontenot had removed himself from the flying schedule because he said he had a head cold or sinus infection. But the day of the flight, he didn’t appear congested or unfit to fly, according to the report.

A few minutes before 9 a.m., Fontenot radioed to an air traffic control center in Washington while he was flying at about 38,000 feet that he was experiencing an emergency. Less than two minutes later, the jet crashed and residents near Deerfield said they heard a series of explosion-like booms.

At some point in the flight, a warning light came on indicating higher than normal temperature in the avionics bay. The report said it’s impossible to know when that light came on and also said it’s possible that Fontenot started his descent in response to a different, unknown issue.

“The standard response to any in-flight emergency at a high altitude normally includes descending the aircraft to a lower altitude,” Brig. Gen. Michael Hudson, president of the accident investigation board, wrote in the report. “I find no other evidence indicating that the higher than normal temperature in the avionics bay contributed to the mishap.”

The report says the single-seat jet was traveling at an air speed greater than 0.83 Mach, or more than 630 miles per hour at the time of the crash. It was also upside down and pointed sharply toward the ground at a 60 to 70 degree angle.

Hudson wrote that his conclusion that Fontenot was incapacitated was based on several factors, including that Fontenot didn’t attempt to eject, that there was enough altitude to recover after declaring an emergency and that the plane reached supersonic speeds on its descent. Fontenot’s reputation as someone who adhered to rules also played a part in his determination, the report says.

Fontenot was an instructor pilot in the 104th Fighter Wing who was the wing’s full-time inspector general. His awards included the Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal and Air Force Achievement Medal. The report says Fontenot was described by those in his squadron as “a great officer, a great leader, a great mentor” and “the best of the best.” The report says there were no human factors relevant to the cause of the crash.

Fontenot, 41, is survived by his wife and two daughters. He was buried at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he graduated in 1996.

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Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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