Admittedly, it has been a bit of a rough day. The fact is, I almost feel guilty for saying that, because a great many men and women are feeling far, far worse than I am.
A year ago today, a McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle assigned to the 131st Fighter Squadron, 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard crashed in rural Virginia while on a cross-country flight. The aircraft was scheduled to receive a radar upgrade, so the flight profile was a simple skyhook from its home station in Westfield, Massachusetts to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, Louisiana.
The pilot was Lieutenant Colonel Morris “Moose” Fontenot, Jr., a full-up Standardization Evaluation Flight Examiner (SEFE) in the F-15 and 2004 graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School. Moose had more than 2,100 hours in the Eaglejet, with 230 of those logged as combat time.
As I wrote a year ago, “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’ve read the Accident Investigation Board report concerning the incident…several times, in fact. Moose was cruising at his planned transit altitude of 43,000 when something went wrong. He initiated a descent at 08:55:58 local time, possibly due to the only anomaly found in evidence–an ECS (Environmental Control System) warning light, one that indicated abnormal heat in the avionics bay.
Based on the evidence collected at the crash site, all of the major systems in the aircraft were operating within normal parameters. In fact, the 104th Maintenance Group actually went so far as to say the particular tail he was flying was “one of the best jets” on the ramp in Westfield. Even so, whatever was happening was enough for Moose to contact the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center at 08:56:24 local and say, “HAWK One-One, declaring emergency.”
The ARTCC responded immediately and asked for confirmation of his status. At 08:56:31, Moose’s response was “Affirm. Standby.” It was the last transmission from the Eagle which, when it impacted the ground approximately a minute and a half later, was between sixty and seventy degrees nose-low, inverted, and at one point, supersonic. There was no attempt to recover from the dive, no attempt to slow down, and no attempt to eject.
“I find that MP (Mishap Pilot) became incapacitated for an unknown reason soon after the final call to Washington Center at 0856:31L.” Those are the words of the AIB’s presiding officer, Brigadier General Mike Hudson–himself a career F-16 pilot with the South Carolina Air National Guard.
So that’s it, FighterSweep Fans. That’s all we get.
Something happened and no one really knows what or why. And maybe that’s why I’m struggling with it; more than anything, when the report was released, I wanted there to be something tangible to give Moose’s family and closest friends. I wanted there to be a real reason for the crash they could wrap their hearts and minds around– a specific reason why he died.
Instead, there’s no closure and the same unanswered questions. I think about Taz, Fade, Jersey, Showtime, and Retz–all friends who flew with Moose. I think about those others who served with him and under his tutelage. I think of the lives he touched simply by being who he was. Most of all, I think of Kara and the girls and the hell they’ve been through in the past year. I am in awe of how they remain so strong, courageous, and graceful in the face of their loss.
Maybe that’s where the lesson in all of this is: maybe there doesn’t have to be an answer. So as tears are shed and hearts hurt this night, just as they have every night for the past year for many, we find our comfort in having had the pleasure of knowing or serving alongside “that guy.” Moose made everyone around him better, and that legacy will carry on in the F-15 community because of the men and women who served under him. There’s so much power in that legacy, as well as the resolve and inspiration demonstrated by the Fontenot family.
Perhaps his passing serves as a reminder that, even when someone who we know and love passes away, everything they are remains alive within us…safe in the hearts of those left behind.