Apparently resolving a mystery that has fueled speculation for 18 days, Air Force officials said Sunday that they had probably found the twisted wreckage of a missing attack bomber protruding from settling snow on a steep cliff just south of Vail.
"It is our collective judgment that what we have seen is likely to be A-10 airplane pieces," Air Force Maj. Gen. Nels Running said at a news conference Sunday night at Eagle County Airport.
The discovery of pieces of gray-painted metal panels on the snowy flanks of a 12,500-foot mountain in the Rockies came only two days before the Air Force was planning to suspend its search for Capt. Craig Button, 32, and his A-10 jet, which disappeared while on a routine training mission.
But a recent wave of warm temperatures and spring rains apparently exposed wreckage that was detected by an Army National Guard helicopter crew late Sunday morning in an area that had been scoured numerous times by everything from high-tech surveillance reconnaissance aircraft and a fleet of helicopters to single-engine planes flown by volunteers.
Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officers Richard Rugg of Denver and Dale Jensen of Eagle discovered the wreckage while hovering within 30 feet of the steep cliff at a site they had examined before.
"The first thing we saw was just a couple pieces of paper," Rugg said. "Then something just caught my eye."
Maj. Chuck Mitchell, an A-10 pilot who flew to the mountain in a helicopter to help identify the aircraft later Sunday, said weather conditions made the ride "harrowing." He said he saw 18 to 24 pieces of metal strewn over a large area. "It was like seeing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle," Mitchell said. "What I saw was a very, very small part of the airframe."
Authorities said that they are confronting a new set of problems that could delay the location of the pilot, the plane's four 500-pound bombs and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter cannon ammunition.
Weather forecasts call for high winds, rain and snow in the region for the next few days, conditions that could hamper attempts to have helicopters hover above the site.
Air Force officials said the terrain is so remote and treacherous they are not concerned about passersby coming into contact with the scattered debris.
For more than two weeks, the search, nearing $1 million, has unleashed possible scenarios that might explain how it disappeared from a three-plane formation over southern Arizona's Superstition Mountains about noon April 2.
About an hour and 40 minutes later, the plane had veered 800 miles off course and, Air Force authorities now believe, plowed into the mountain, where it was last detected by radar imagery and eyewitness accounts. Button apparently never activated a transponder device that would allow tracking of the plane.
Some initially theorized that it was all part of a bizarre suicide over the mountains, where Button loved to ski, or a botched attempt to steal the tank-destroying jet, which cruises at about 400 mph.
(As a precaution, Air Force officials inspected all 140 airstrips and hangars between Vail and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tuscon, where the errant flight originated, to make sure the plane had not been hidden.)
Experts now wonder whether Button may have been suffering from a lack of oxygen caused by exposure to carbon monoxide, fuel fumes, medication--or a combination of them that might have caused him to fly while disoriented.
Authorities said Button, who was flying the third position of a "delta" formation before going off course, had completed an aerial refueling maneuver at an altitude of 19,000 feet only 15 minutes before he disappeared.
Button left the aerial tanker and was flying to the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range when his plane was last seen.
It is possible, some experts say, that the A-10's fueling port, which is directly in front of the plane's windshield, or the air tanker's boom had sprung a leak, filling the cockpit with fumes.
That might explain why witnesses reported seeing the plane flying unusually slowly while making bank turns and altitude changes above the steep terrain about 15 miles south of Vail.
Weather permitting, the Air Force planned early today to dispatch a large helicopter to the site to lower a retrieval team to the ground. The team will try to verify that this is in fact the missing A-10, confirm that Button was killed and determine the status of the four bombs.