TWAIN HARTE -- The Air Force launched several F-16 fighters Wednesday to help in the search for a pilot from Twain Harte whose plane disappeared over the Adriatic Sea near Italy on Monday. Family members expressed optimism that Capt. Lucas Gruenther will be found safely.
Search teams Tuesday recovered debris believed to be from the F-16 Fighting Falcon that Gruenther was flying on a training sortie. Wednesday, family members said searchers located his drogue parachute and helmet evidence that he ejected from his jet. The family was encouraged because Gruenther likely carried survival gear, including a raft, food and water.
"The drogue chute is a good sign," said Gruenther's wife, Cassy, in a news release provided by the military. "It means he ejected, and we've been told the helmet is in good condition."
Gruenther, who is stationed in Italy, was conducting a nighttime training sortie when the Air Force lost contact with his aircraft.
"If anyone could survive something like this, it would be Luc," Cassy Gruenther said of her husband. Cassy, who will deliver the couple's first child a girl to be named Serene in a few weeks, described her husband as a "self-reliant outdoorsman who would sleep every night under the stars if he could" and said he's in excellent physical shape.
The fighter jets launched Wednesday will help several other U.S. and Italian aircraft already involved in the search for Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing. "While not a reconnaissance aircraft like the other aircraft already involved in the search, our F-16s have targeting pods, which can be used to augment the search," Brig. Gen. Scott J. Zobrist, the 31st Fighter Wing's commander, said in a news release.
"The weather and size of the search area have limited our ability to provide assistance with F-16s up to this point; however, now that the ships and reconnaissance aircraft have refined the search area, we hope to help by putting more sensors and eyes out there."
Gruenther, a 1999 graduate of Summerville High in Tuolumne City, and his wife were high-school sweethearts. Gruenther's mother and mother-in-law headed to Italy on Tuesday after being informed Gruenther was missing Monday.
"Luc has wanted to be a pilot since he was a little boy," Romel Mathias, Gruenther's mother, said in the military news release. "And he did everything he had to do to get there. That's what he does with everything in his life. If he wants to do something, he finds a way to do it."
Cassy Gruenther said her husband plans to stay in the Air Force, potentially following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Army Gen. Alfred Gruenther, who served as supreme Allied commander in Europe from 1953 to 1956.
"He loves what he does," she said. "He's the kind of officer who knows the name of every maintainer out there on the flightline. I've always pictured him as a general one day, making a difference."
Zobrist said the search continues in full force.
"The search operation in the Adriatic is truly expansive," he said. "I'm grateful to the many Italian and U.S. professionals who are executing this mission, and I am hopeful that we will bring Captain Gruenther home safely."
Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.
To read the military's news release, click here.