Fighter pilots spend countless hours in their training memorizing checklists, learning aircraft systems, and repeating emergency procedures in nightmarish simulator rides. Since flying high-performance jets is inherently dangerous, they must be safety conscious, experts in risk-mitigation, and exercise sound judgment in situations where fractions of a second can be the difference between death and survival.
There are a great number of things that can go wrong in their environment, many of which demand the pilot and his or her aircraft should part company…hastily. That “emergency egress” scenario is wrought with all kinds of peril as well, but when word is received that one of these men or women has declared an In-Flight Emergency (IFE) and contact is lost, we still need to trust they are well-trained and believe for the best, regardless of what it looks like or sounds like.
On 27 August, I was on break during a day of training when I got an ominous text message: an F-15C Eagle from the Massachusetts Air National Guard was down in Virginia. Word spreads quickly in this community and it wasn’t long before some of the details started to emerge. Most troubling was the pilot’s status being classified at the time as “unknown.”
One of the initial radio calls from the scene went something like this:
“I’m on location, with smoke, and we do have debris,” that first responder is quoted as saying. “I got debris everywhere…I haven’t located anybody.”
Search teams were assembled. Emergency equipment converged. Prayers went up. And we waited…and hoped…and waited some more. We prayed harder. We believed.
At the end of our wait, the heartbreaking news came that the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Morris “Moose” Fontenot, Jr., had died in the crash.
A 1996 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Moose had amassed more than 2,300 flying hours and was a 2004 graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School. Before leaving active duty, his last assignment was as commander of the 67th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa, Japan. The “Fighting Cocks” are a legendary unit in the F-15 community, having won the coveted Raytheon Trophy twice in the last three years. Moose was the commander of the squadron during their winning performance in 2013.
Moose was a pretty intense guy, a brilliant aviator and tactician, and very respected in the Eagle community. Most importantly, he will be remembered for being a devoted, loving husband to his wife Kara, and an amazing father to their daughters Natalie and Nicole. The whole reason he left active duty for the Guard was to create stability for his family. They always came first. Always.
I wanted to take a few minutes to share something with you, and it is only because I received Kara’s permission to do so that you’ll see it here. We have dedicated ourselves to serving the flying community on this website, sharing the stories that won’t necessarily make headlines, but are worthy of being told. In times like this, we would be remiss were we to ignore an obligation to support the Fontenot family and the Barnstormers of the 104th Fighter Wing.
We have spent a great deal of time talking about the Fighter Pilot Culture and the bond they share. That bond is especially tight between graduates of the United States Air Force Weapons School, and it is in their honor, and out of respect to Moose and his family, that Kara’s words appear here.
On Monday, 8 September, I traveled to Dover Air Force Base to view Moose’s remains and collect his personal effects. This was an important part of getting closure for me–proof that he did not simply disappear into thin air. For a while afterward, the experience left me mute. I could not talk about it.
There were two items left to me as evidence that my husband was in that plane: 1) a fragment of a military ID/CAC card that was severely fragmented and melted but on which the ID photo was completely unscathed, leaving his image intact, and 2) this part of his Weapons School patch, which is fragmented and burned but somehow miraculously survived.
These items gave me the closure I was seeking.
I wanted to share this for all of Moose’s patch-wearing bros…
So at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to: these men and women are family. They look out for one another. They take care of one another. And if someone falls, the others step in to lift up those left behind. That is how it has always been, and how it will always be.
Moose epitomized that. Always there with a helping hand. He led his squadron from the front. He set the example for the others to follow. He took care of his bros and their families when they were in need. He didn’t just memorize or recite his creed…he lived it.
“So here’s a nickel on the grass to you, my friend, and your spirit, enthusiasm, sacrifice, and courage–but most of all to your friendship. Yours is a dying breed and when you are gone, the world will be a lesser place.”
Godspeed, brother. I’ll see you when I see you…