Fighter crash report final

By Mike Morris, The Union Democrat

The U.S. Air Force this week released a report on the January jet crash that killed Maj. Lucas Gruenther, a Tuolumne County native.

Gruenther died during ejection from the F-16 he was flying on a nighttime training exercise over the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Italy, on Jan. 28. He became "spatially disoriented" due at least partially to poor weather conditions, the use of night-vision goggles, and the plane's high rate of speed, the 52-page U.S. Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report says.

"This led (Gruenther) to misjudge the imminent need to eject," the report says.

Gruenther suffered fatal head and neck trauma during the high-speed ejection.

Lucas' brother, Alex Gruenther, who is a computer engineer with the Air Force, said the plane was traveling 655 mph with extreme winds. His brother's seat twisted and his helmet came off during the ejection, he said.

The plane was destroyed upon impact, according to the report.

Alex Gruenther said the report needs to be taken in context. He believes his brother "did everything right" given the circumstances.

"We're talking a split-second decision in life and death. You just have to put yourself in the cockpit - you're going down 1,000 feet a second, pulling 8 G's, warning lights and audible alarms are going off," he said by phone Monday from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Lucas Gruenther, 32, who grew up in Twain Harte, was stationed at Aviano Air Force Base in northeastern Italy.

His wife and Summerville High School sweetheart, Cassy, gave birth to their daughter, Serene, 10 days after the accident.

Cassy Gruenther and 8-month-old Serene moved back to Tuolumne County from Italy this month.

"It's been really hard, but the blessing is that she's a part of him," Cassy Gruenther said Monday - exactly nine months after the accident.

Cassy Gruenther said transcripts of radio calls the night of the accident show Gruenther expressed concern about the weather multiple times.

"It's hard, because I just feel they shouldn't have been out there to begin with," she said.

She said her late husband was a responsible pilot who "never pushed the limits" with weather or safety.

"I think the most important thing for me is to know Luc did everything he was supposed to do - everything he humanly could," she said.

Memorial services were held earlier this year at Summerville High and Gruenther's Italian air base along with a funeral service with full military honors at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Contact Mike Morris at mmorris@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585.

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The Union Democrat
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