(MCT) — TWAIN HARTE, Calif. — An Air Force pilot reported missing Monday night when his F-16 fighter jet disappeared over the Adriatic Sea off the Italian coast is from Tuolumne County, Calif.
Search teams recovered debris Tuesday believed to be from the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Rescuers continued to search for the pilot, Capt. Lucas “Luc” Gruenther, who grew up in Twain Harte and is a 1999 graduate of Summerville High in Tuolumne.
His wife, Cassy, is expecting their first child in a few weeks. The Gruenthers were high school sweethearts at Summerville.
Twain Harte resident Chance Hildreth, one of Gruenther’s brothers, said family and friends have been praying for his safe return. Hildreth asked community members to keep Gruenther in their prayers as well.
Family members learned Monday that Gruenther, 32, was missing.
“I thought, ‘They will find him,’ ” said Gruenther’s father-in-law, Randy Williams of Tuolumne. “But we haven’t heard anything.”
Williams said his wife and Gruenther’s mother are on their way to Italy to be with Cassy Gruenther. He said he last saw his daughter and son-in-law over Thanksgiving when they were home for about three weeks.
Gruenther was a standout athlete, leader and student at Summerville who played varsity soccer, was involved in more than a half-dozen campus clubs and served as student body president.
“He had the personality — ‘I’m going to make this a better place,’ ” said Mitch Heldstab, Gruenther’s grade-level coordinator at Summerville. “When he believed in something, he went after it.”
Heldstab said Gruenther and the student body vice president were so successful in tackling the campus’ litter problem that the state fire marshal used Summerville as an example of keeping high schools free of trash.
Gruenther came back to Summerville in April to give two presentations to students.
Heldstab said Gruenther comes from an athletic family and that one of his grandfathers is Olympic champion Bob Mathias, who won the gold medal in the decathlon in 1948 and 1952.
Gruenther is an Air Force Academy distinguished graduate. He is the 31st Fighter Wing’s chief of flight safety at the Aviano Air Base in Italy. He was performing a training mission when the base lost contact with him about 8 p.m. Monday, according to an air base news release.
U.S. military officials are coordinating search and rescue efforts with Italian military and civilian teams. U.S. military resources joined the search including an Air Force HC-130 from U.S. Africa Command and a rotation of Navy P-3s from U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
“We are dedicating all available resources to the search and rescue operation,” said Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist, 31st Fighter Wing commander. “I’m grateful to the many Italian and U.S. professionals who are executing this mission. I am hopeful that we will bring him home safely.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Capt. Gruenther and his family. I personally appreciate the efforts of the many people who are supporting the Gruenthers in this difficult time.”
(Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.)