February 1, 2013 (by Matt Millham) - The body of an Air Force F-16 pilot who went missing during a night training flight late Monday was found Thursday off the coast of Italy, according to statements issued by his family and his unit, the Aviano-based 31st Fighter Wing.
"It is with great sadness that we announce that the body of Captain Lucas Gruenther was found in the Adriatic Sea this afternoon," the family's statement said.
Gruenther and his F-16 Fighting Falcon went missing about 8 p.m. Monday roughly 150 miles south of Aviano. A massive search effort ensued, including Italian coast guard and navy ships, fishing vessels and an assortment of planes, including other F-16s from the wing.
Italian news site Romagna Noi reported Gruenther’s body was found around 2 p.m. about 15 miles off the coast of Pesaro, where it was recovered by an Italian coast guard patrol boat.
According to Romagna Noi, Gruenther was wearing his flight suit, but a family member had to officially identify the body before news of the discovery could be released.
In its statement, the family gave thanks for the outpouring of support it received over the nearly four days since Gruenther went missing.
"We especially want to extend our deepest gratitude to the many people who volunteered their time and resources to help bring Luc home," the statement said.
"Captain Gruenther was an outstanding officer who epitomized what it means to be an Airman," Brig. Gen. Scott J. Zobrist, 31st Fighter Wing commander, said in a news release issued Thursday evening. "He was not only a first-rate pilot; he was an exceptional leader whose presence will be sorely missed.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Gruenther family during this difficult time. Words cannot adequately express how sorry we are for your loss."
Earlier, the family released a statement indicating searchers recovered Gruenther’s helmet, which was reportedly in good condition, and his drogue parachute, a sign that he’d ejected.
That statement expressed optimism that the 32-year-old pilot would be found alive. Cassy Gruenther, who is weeks away from giving birth to the couple’s first child, said in that statement her husband "… is a self-reliant outdoorsman who would sleep every night under the stars if he could. He’s a skydiver, he’s a rock climber and he’s a certified scuba diver. He is a health nut and in great shape."
Thursday’s much shorter message called Gruenther, "A compassionate husband, a loving son, and a devoted brother" who "leaves behind a family who loves him dearly and a legacy of achievement."
"We will never fully recover from our loss, but take heart in the knowledge that during his all-too-short time in this world, he made a significant difference in the lives of all whom he met."
Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the wing, lost contact with the base and the rest of his formation as they flew Monday night over the Adriatic.
Italian personnel found debris believed to be from his jet Tuesday.
The pilot’s grandfather, Army Gen. Alfred Gruenther, served as supreme allied commander Europe from 1953 to 1956. His brother, Alexander Gruenther, is also an Air Force captain, stationed in Brussels, according to a local newspaper.
"Luc has wanted to be a pilot since he was a little boy," his mother, Romel Mathias, was quoted as saying in the earlier family statement. "And he did everything he had to get there. That’s what he does with everything in his life. If he wants to do something, he finds a way to do it."
Cassy Gruenther said her husband picked up Italian quickly and the couple has been leading the Maniago chapter of the Vicini Americani, a program started by the base and Italian communities to foster friendship and cooperation.
"He served six months in Afghanistan, where his mission was to support ground troops," Mathias said. "We remember Luc saying that the greatest day on deployment was when he got to meet the soldiers he supported with air cover during an operation."
Stars and Stripes’ Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.