AF pilot missing at sea

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat January 30, 2013 09:10 am

U.S. and Italian rescue teams continued to search today for Capt. Lucas Gruenther, an Air Force pilot raised in Twain Harte, whose fighter jet is believed to have crashed during an Adriatic Sea training mission.

The chief of flight safety for the Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing, Gruenther was conducting a nighttime training exercise Monday when Aviano Air Base lost contact with his F-16 plane at about 8 p.m, according to a Tuesday statement from the base.

Italian aircraft and ships, as well as F-16 jets, were combing the jet’s last known location, about 10 to 15 nautical miles east of Cervia.

An Italian news organization reported visibility was poor, and Gruenther’s jet sent out an alarm signal just before it went missing. Other jets on the training mission returned safely to the base, according to the Italian reports. 

Search teams recovered debris Tuesday, believed to be from Gruenther’s jet. Gruenther, 32, was still missing. 

Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing, said “all available resources” are being devoted to the search-and-rescue effort. Aviano Air Base confirmed Gruenther is the missing pilot. 

His mother, Romel Mathias, of Twain Harte, flew to Italy on Tuesday with his mother-in-law, Kerry Williams. His wife, Cassy Williams, his high school sweetheart and a fellow Summerville 1999 grad, is in Italy and expecting the couple’s first child. 

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Williams’ father, Randy Williams, and other relatives said Mathias has asked them not to answer questions from the media.

They are counting on Gruenther’s safe return, Randy Williams said. 

“There’s still some high hopes,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns.” 

Gruenther finished at Summerville High in 1999 and is still remembered by school staff as an exceptional student leader and athlete.

The grandson of former U.S. Rep. Bob Mathias, a two-time Olympic decathlon gold medalist, Gruenther graduated with distinction from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2003.

He rose through the ranks as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, spent six months in Afghanistan and was stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Summerville High Grade Level Coordinator Mitch Heldstab described Gruenther as a patriot who led the “Pledge of Allegiance” during his graduation ceremony. 

“He made several huge contributions to our campus,” Heldstab said. “He was the type of kid where if he didn’t think something was right, he wouldn’t whine and complain about it. He would find a way to fix it.” 

By Heldstab’s count, Gruenther was involved in about nine school clubs, ranging from the Spanish and French clubs to an ecology club he helped found. 

He was also an officer in the Air Force Junior ROTC — which Summerville High teacher Lee Suggs, who had Gruenther in his U.S. history class, identified as the likely catalyst of his military career. 

During his senior year, Gruenther became president of Summerville High’s student government and a student representative on the school board.

Gruenther continued his leadership role at Summerville after graduation. During a  visit to the school last year, he talked to current students about his Air Force experiences. They responded with enthusiasm, and lined up after his presentation to shake his hand.

He described one of his biggest days in Afghanistan as the time he flew his F-16 over a group of American soldiers being ambushed. He helped scare away their attackers with a show of force, dropping a 500-pound bomb nearby.

He later met the soldiers he helped protect and was greeted with a hero’s welcome.

Gruenther is one of few Summerville High alumni to ever join the Air Force, said former Principal Dave Urquhart.

“It was very impressive, and we were all very proud of him,” Urquhart said.