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Radar reports, sightings plot path of missing A-10


Air Force suspects jet not on auto-pilot

April 11, 1997
Web posted at: 8:16 p.m. EDT (0016 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Missing Air Force Capt. Craig Button was flying the third of three A-10s on April 2 as the formation approached a practice range on what the Air Force says was a routine air-to-ground gunnery mission.

Button and the second A-10 Thunderbolt dropped 6,000 feet behind the lead jet as they neared the Gila Bend target range in a remote area south of Phoenix and west of Tucson, Maj. Gen. Donald Peterson said at a news conference Friday.

The officer said the "separation" between the jets is standard procedure. But while the second jet followed the leader into the range, Button apparently did not, and he has not been heard from since.


His A-10 fighter followed a path that took him in a northeasterly direction out of Arizona, through a corner of New Mexico and into Colorado.

Peterson said Button, whose jet was based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, was spotted a number of times by observers on the ground. One person who saw him was an unidentified pilot backpacking in mountains near Aspen.

Air Force believes A-10 was flown manually

The pilot told the Air Force that Button flew through a "sucker hole," a pocket of clear sky in what was otherwise a heavy overcast.

It was the A-10's ability to find the hole, and its frequent change of direction during that period, that has persuaded the Air Force that Button was flying the plane manually rather than relying on automatic-pilot.


The A-10 also was tracked by radar in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Denver. Because the A-10's transponder was turned off, however, the plane could not be identified at the time. It was only after studying radar tapes later that authorities were able to track Button's flight.

The search, which has been hampered by overcast skies, high winds, snow drifts up to 6 feet deep and continued snowfall, is concentrated in a remote section of Eagle County, Colorado, 12 to 15 miles from Vail.

Peterson said authorities believe the A-10 had no more than 2 minutes to 5 minutes of fuel left, and the jet is believed to have crashed near New York Mountain and Craig Peak.

Observers reported hearing explosions and seeing smoke, but no wreckage has been found. Peterson said the Air Force believed that the 500-pound bombs attached to the plane were not activated, and would have remained intact if it crashed.

It may or may not be a coincidence that Button's first name is Craig, and that his family is reportedly from New York.

The sightings:

  • 11:58 a.m.: east of Tucson
  • 12:10 p.m.: west of Apache Junction, Arizona
  • 12:11 p.m.: several miles south of Lake Roosevelt
  • 12:29 p.m.: north of Lake Roosevelt
  • 12:43 p.m.: approaching New Mexico
  • 12:58 p.m.: just inside Colorado
  • 1 p.m.: near Telluride
  • 1:08 p.m.: near Montrose
  • 1:22 p.m.: Button begins a zigzag pattern with this sighting between Grand Junction and Aspen
  • 1:27 p.m.: bearing to the northeast, Button is now north of Aspen
  • 1:30 p.m.: Button is due south of his last position
  • 1:33 p.m.: the A-10 is southeast of the last sighting
  • 1:35 p.m.: north by northeast of its previous sighting, the A-10 is between Aspen and Grand Junction again.
  • 1:37 p.m.: Button is heading northeast again
  • 1:40 p.m.: In the last reported sighting, Button is northeast of Aspen, near Craig's Peak and New York Mountain.

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