Searchers find helmet, parachute in sea

Jan. 31, 2013 at 11:08 AM
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AVIANO, Italy, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- A pilot's helmet was recovered in the Adriatic Sea near where a U.S. F-16 fighter jet and its pilot went missing, officials said.

Rescuers recovered a parachute Wednesday, and have found debris fragments in the area near the town of Cervia. The plane and pilot Capt. Lucas Gruenther lost contact with Aviano Air Base Monday, Italy's ANSA news agency reported.

Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing, went missing Monday night while piloting his F-16 Fighting Falcon as part of a night training mission. He lost contact with the base and the rest of his formation while flying over the Adriatic.

Officials at Aviano's Pagliano e Gori airport, which has jurisdiction over flights from the U.S. base, said they were concerned that a technical problem arose so fast "the pilot did not have time to activate the mechanism that makes it possible to eject, after having established that the plane could not cause risks for the local population."

Gruenther's wife expressed confidence late Wednesday that he would return, Stars and Stripes reported.

"If anyone could survive something like this, it would be Luc," Cassy Gruenther said in a statement.

She said finding the parachute and his helmet were a good sign.

"It means he ejected, and we've been told the helmet is in good condition," she said.

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