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Air Force downplays chance that pilot stole jet

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Attack plane vanished nearly a week ago

April 8, 1997
Web posted at: 10:13 p.m. EDT (0213 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The mystery deepened Tuesday as Air Force search planes combed the Colorado Rockies for a missing A-10 attack plane, which disappeared without a trace while on a training run nearly a week ago.

But while the Air Force has been exploring several possible theories about what happened to the plane, officials are downplaying speculation that the pilot, Capt. Craig Button, may have made off with the $9 million aircraft and the four 500-pound bombs on board.

"Anything you can think of has probably been looked at. But the evidence so far doesn't indicate any of these wild hypotheses, like he was trying to steal it, or he went off to Telluride to go skiing." said Staff Sgt. Rian Clawson, a spokesman at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, where Button's flight originated.

Air Force officials, however, say they are investigating Button's background. Telluride is a Colorado ski resort. Button is reputed to be an avid skier.

It's unlikely pilot ejected from aircraft

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The plane disappeared last Wednesday during an exercise with two other A-10s over a training range near Gila Bend, Arizona. The other pilots noticed Button's plane had left formation, but they were unable to establish radio contact with him.

The search shifted to the Colorado Rockies, because radar last tracked the plane to a rugged area near the town of Edwards with 12,000-foot mountain peaks. Witnesses there also reported seeing a low-flying plane.

Button, who was alone in the jet, could have ejected from the aircraft. But Air Force officials consider that scenario unlikely, because ejection would have automatically triggered a homing beacon, and no beacon has been detected.

The jet itself also has a tracking device, but it was not turned on because the plane was flying in formation with other aircraft. An Air Force official said that was "normal procedure."

A U-2 spy plane sent up to search for Button's plane could not find it. If the A-10 did crash, recent snows may have buried the wreckage.

Plane may not turn up until snow melts

"There are cases where aircraft disappear in winter and then turn up sometime later after the snows have melted," said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Michael Doubleday. But he said the search for the plane would continue indefinitely.

"We never totally suspend looking for any kind of a missing aircraft until we have evidence of what might have occurred," Doubleday said.

Button's friends and relatives said they knew nothing suspicious about the recent behavior of the 32-year-old pilot, a native of Massapequa, New York.

"He was A-OK, stable, didn't seem to be under any stress," said Button's father, Richard, who trained pilots during World War II. He said his son has a passion for flying and dreamed of living a life like the pilots in the movie "Top Gun."

Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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