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Weather hinders search of likely A-10 crash site

April 21, 1997
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EDT (1915 GMT)

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EAGLE, Colorado (CNN) -- Severe weather on Monday hampered efforts to reach the site that the Air Force believes contains the wreckage of a missing A-10 attack plane.

Up to a foot of overnight snowfall and winds gusting up to 45 mph kept a recovery crew away from the remote site near New York Mountain and Gold Dust Peak, 15 miles southwest of Vail.

Searchers had hoped an MH-53 helicopter, capable of hovering in high winds, would arrive at the site later Monday. But search commander Maj. Gen. Nels Running said that the winds were even too strong for the MH-53.

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The crew of a search helicopter spotted debris Sunday on a sheer cliff -- one Running said they'd probably flown by 20 times -- after noticing "a couple of pieces of paper."

The paper was unusual at such a high altitude, said Chief Warrant Officer Richard Rugg, "then something just caught my eye."

Rugg and Chief Warrant Officer Dale Jensen maneuvered their helicopter within 30 feet of the site, and identified gray painted metal that could have come from inside the A-10, and several smaller pieces of metal.

Searchers also flew an A-10 pilot in by helicopter to verify the sighting. The pilot, Capt. Chuck Mitchell, said that the debris "didn't look like an A-10" at first, but closer examination led him to agree with Running's declaration that he was 99.9 percent certain it was the missing plane. There was no sign of the pilot.

The plane and pilot, Capt. Craig Button, vanished on April 2 while on a training mission in southern Arizona. The plane veered out of formation and flew to Colorado, where it disappeared from radar.

Witnesses in the mountainous area known for its ski resorts reported seeing an aircraft or hearing booms and seeing smoke in the vicinity of New York Mountain on the day the plane disappeared.

Military officials do not know why Button flew his plane away from the training mission. They originally speculated that he could have become incapacitated. Air Force investigators have looked into the pilot's background for an explanation but say they have found "no derogatory evidence."

The plane carried four 500-pound bombs, which were not armed, Air Force officials said, and most likely survived any crash.

Defense Secretary William Cohen called the plane's disappearance "a mystery, inside an enigma, wrapped in a riddle," paraphrasing Winston Churchill's description of the Soviet Union.

Cohen said there was no basis to come to any conclusions about what happened on April 2. "We have to wait for the determination," he said.

 
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