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Search for A-10 pilot to begin one last round

mountain Latest developments: April 17, 1997
Web posted at: 9:20 p.m. EDT (0120 GMT)

EAGLE, Colorado (CNN) -- Searchers are to begin another series of flights Friday that will be the most intensive yet in their efforts to locate a missing A-10 Thunderbolt.

If their efforts are unsuccessful, most elements of the search will be suspended.

Lt. Gen. Frank Campbell said at a news conference Thursday that 10 more planes have been added to assist the Civil Air Patrol. The search will again concentrate on a 5-mile ring around New York Mountain, midway between Eagle and Vail, Colorado.

missing plane

"We're going to hit the (search) grids hard and bring detection up, systematically searching outward," Campbell said. "If, within five days, we do not find anything, we will have searched thoroughly, and we will consult with our superiors and suspend the search."

The jet, flown by Capt. Craig Button and carrying four 500-pound bombs, veered off April 2 from a training mission in Arizona and was tracked by radar and visual sightings to the vicinity of New York Mountain.

The jet is believed to have crashed, and residents have reported hearing loud explosions and seeing heavy smoke.

Spy satellites find 'infrared event'

Campbell said Thursday that spy satellites have picked up evidence of what may have been an explosion.

Button

"Sensors indicate an infrared event ... at the time the aircraft was in the (search) area," he said. He would not comment, however, on whether it could have been the plane crashing or the pilot dropping a bomb.

Further confusing the issue is that while there are 40 seismic sensors in the area, none of them has registered anything of the magnitude of a bomb exploding or a plane crashing.

"We are told a plane crash would have registered about 1.9 on the Richter scale," Campbell said.

He said that suspending the search would not mean that the Air Force was "throwing in the towel."

"Searches with sensors will continue," he said. "We would suspend the search until the conditions change."

Heavy snow fell for several days after the plane is believed to have crashed, limiting the ability of those making visual searches. Civil Air Patrol officials have said previously that given the deep snow, it could take months before the plane is found.

SR-71 eliminates 14 sites, adds 2

Using an SR-71 spy plane, which has radar capable of penetrating snow, has enabled the searchers to eliminate 14 possible crash sites and add two new ones.

Most of the 362 search flights have been flown by Civil Air Patrol planes making low-altitude visual searches. The search has logged 600 hours of flight time and has included flights by some of the Air Force's most sophisticated spy planes. The cost of the search is estimated at $700,000.

Col. Denver Pletcher of the Colorado Civil Air Patrol admitted that it is possible that the plane could be somewhere else entirely. "But we do believe we are in the right place and doing the right thing," he said.

Responding to a similar question in Washington, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili said, "We have not overlooked the idea that the plane might have landed somewhere. ... We have looked at a number of places where that could have happened, so far without any results."

Asked what he would say to Button's parents, if the search is called off without finding the pilot, Campbell replied, "What we've been saying to them all along. That we're most concerned for the welfare of their son, and we are searching to the utmost of our ability."

 
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