Massachusetts National Guard F-15 jet crashes along a mountainside in Deerfield, Va.; fate of pilot unknown

Scene of wooded crash site in Augusta County. (Photo: NewsChopper7)

DEERFIELD, Va. (WJLA/ABC News/AP) -- A Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C jet crashed Wednesday along a mountainside in the George Washington National Forest of western Virginia, authorities said, but the fate of the pilot was unknown.

The crash occurred shortly after 9 a.m. west of Staunton in the rural community of Deerfield in Augusta County (about 135 miles northwest of Richmond). The area around Deerfield is filled with rocky, steep terrain.

Residents who live in the town of 130 people were shaken when they heard a series of explosions-like booms and then saw a pillar of heavy, black smoke coming from the crash site.

"It's the loudest noise I've ever heard," said 63-year-old Rebecca Shinaberry, who lives on a farm about two miles away. "(It) just shook the ground, and from my house we could just see a big plume of smoke."

Turkey farmer A.D. Shinaberry said that from the first two booms, he thought a plane had broken the sound barrier. But 10 seconds later he heard a third boom - the crash, he said.

Then, "it was like a mushroom, black smoke came up," Shinaberry said.

No injuries on the ground were reported. Virginia State Police launched a helicopter to search for the pilot, who may have ejected from the plane before impact. Witnesses reportedly saw an ejection chute.

"We are hopeful that the pilot is OK, and the pilot will be in our thoughts and prayers," said Col. James Keefe, commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.

State troopers and firefighters followed the smoke from Deerfield about five miles into the forest, where they found a deep crater and a large debris field among the hills and mountains.

Rescuers initially expressed concern about possible toxic fumes and radioactive materials, but Keefe said the plane had no munitions aboard - just fuel.

Guard officials confirmed to ABC7 News that communication with the jet had been lost prior to the crash; the pilot reported an "in-flight emergency" moments before radio contact ceased.

The plane was traveling at a high altitude, about 30,000 to 40,000 feet, when the "extremely experienced" pilot reported encountering a problem, officials said.

The jet was on a maintenance flight from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts. which is home to the 104th Fighter Wing.

Base officials told ABC7 the crashed jet was an older aircraft due to receive a system upgrade upon arrival at its flight destination in New Orleans, Louisiana.

F-15s are maneuverable tactical fighters that can reach speeds up to 1,875 mph, according to the U.S. Air Force website. The F-15C Eagle entered the Air Force inventory in 1979 and costs nearly $30 million, the website says. The Air Force has nearly 250 of them.

A Massachusetts Guard spokesman said he "couldn't even remember the last time they had a mishap" with the F-15C model aircraft.

But the Associated Press reported that several F-15s have crashed over the past few years in various states. In at least one, the pilot ejected safely. Causes included failure of a support structure for the jet and pilot error.