- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Investigators were searching in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday for debris from two F-15C Eagles that could help determine the cause of a mid-air crash that killed a pilot during a training exercise.

Training flights from Eglin Air Force Base, where the two flights originated, have been temporarily stopped while the base mourns.

Any time we conduct flight operations, we do it as a team. We are all feeling the effects of this as a team, as one, said Sgt. Bryan Franks, spokesman for Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing, which includes 54 F-15s, more than 80 pilots and hundreds of airmen.

The pilot of the second single-seat F-15C Eagle was released from the hospital in good condition, Sgt. Franks said. The other pilot’s family was told of his death late Wednesday.

Both pilots had ejected and were located by rescuers Wednesday evening.

The cause of the collision about 35 miles south of Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle was not immediately known, officials said. It will be investigated by an Air Force board.

The training exercise emphasized basic maneuvers and tactics, Col. Todd Harmer, commander of the 33rd Training Wing, said Wednesday night.

Sgt. Franks said the pilots do the routine training maneuvers four days a week.

After the crash, a Coast Guard rescue jet located the pilot who survived and radioed the location to the Nina, a commercial snapper and grouper fishing boat that picked him up.

Thomas Niquet, the boat’s captain, said he found the man in the middle of an oil slick after the boat passed through some of the crash debris.

He was able to talk to us, but he was weak. He had his vest on and it was inflated, his parachute was right there by him. He had been there in the water for quite a while, but he didn’t have any injuries, Mr. Niquet said.

He wanted some water and we covered him up with a blanket. He was worried a lot about the other pilot, he said.

The surviving pilot told rescuers he saw the other pilot eject but lost him in the clouds. He told them the approximate location for the second pilot, who was found by a Coast Guard helicopter.

The Air Force grounded all of its F-15s — nearly 700 — after the catastrophic failure of an F-15C during a routine training flight in Missouri in November. The pilot safely ejected.

Most were back in service by January, but others were grounded indefinitely after defects were found.

The Air Force began using the F-15C in 1979. The planes, built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991 in support of Operation Desert Storm and have since been used in Iraq, Turkey and Bosnia.

The planes can fly as high as 65,000 feet, and each costs about $30 million, according to the Air Force.

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