Bad Weather Prevents Search of Suspected Warplane Crash Site

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Wind-driven snow Monday kept an Air Force recovery team known as the “Ninja brain surgeons” from dangling over a steep Rocky Mountain slope to examine the suspected crash site of a missing warplane.

A powerful helicopter needed to drop the team was grounded by the weather at an airport 40 miles away. Howling winds and blowing snow whipped through the search headquarters here, about a mile below the snowy mountainside where shards of gray metal were spotted Sunday.

The weather was expected to improve today. But Air Force Col. Denver Pletcher said the new snow cover on the jagged, steep slope could make it too dangerous for the crew to lower searchers.


The Air Force believes that the wreckage is the $9-million A-10 Thunderbolt warplane that vanished April 2. But there was no sign of Capt. Craig Button, who was at the controls when the plane left a Tucson base on a training mission and veered north toward Colorado. The site in the central Rockies, 15 miles southwest of Vail, is about 800 miles off course.

In Massapequa, N.Y., Button’s family declined comment.

The only way to get a rescue team to the site is to dangle them 100 to 200 feet below the helicopter, and one good gust could “whip them right into the mountainside,” Maj. Gen. Nels Running said.

The special helicopter from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico is powerful enough to withstand some high winds, can fly at altitudes of up to 16,000 feet and can lift 20,000 pounds.

But the copter on Monday only got as far as Leadville, Colo., which at 10,143 feet is home to the nation’s highest airport. Once it reaches the search headquarters, the crew will confer with other pilots who have flown over the site and decide whether to drop the para-rescue team.

Pletcher said the team members earned the nickname “Ninja brain surgeons” because they can provide specialized medical care as well as defend themselves, rappel down mountains or track soldiers.

Air Force officers involved in the search operation said it is unlikely they will be able to determine from the wreckage why Button flew so far off course.



Rocky Mountain Recovery

When weather allows, an Air Force recovery team will lower four people from a MH-53A helicopter. They will attempt to verify that the plane is the A-10 that vanished April 2.

The forecast

TODAY: Scattered snow, strong winds to 40 mph; snow moving out later in the day

WEDNESDAY: Clearing skies with winds diminishing to 20-30 mph.


The problems

* Searchers can’t land on the snow for fear of avalanches

* High winds could smash team members into the mountain

* Visibility low due to weather conditions