An F-15C crashed earlier this morning in the mountains of western Virginia, and hours later, the pilot seems to have vanished without a trace. Part of the reason offered has been because it's so hard to communicate in that part of the country. But communications are silent in the National Radio Quiet Zone on purpose.
The Massachusetts Air National Guard fighter jet from the 104th Air Wing came down somewhere near Deerfield, Virginia, population 132. That much we do know. Witnesses and the Air Force have given conflicting statements on whether or not anyone saw the pilot eject, but early in the morning, when you're not normally looking for someone falling out of the sky, it's easy to miss some things.
You might be wondering what's taking the Air Force and emergency rescue teams so long to find a pilot – an American military pilot – in America. Especially on the East Coast, which is so overcrowded it might as well be geographical plate of nachos from Taco Bell.
But the as-yet-unnamed pilot, if he is still alive, came down in the Shenandoah Valley, which is full of mountains and forest.
And even worse than that, he appears to have come down in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone.
I first realized that the NRQZ might be a problem in this afternoon's press conference, featuring Colonel James Keefe, commander of the 104th Fighter Wing. Someone asked him a garbled question, and this was his response (bolding mine):
Yeah, so I just want to get to that. The crash site is a very remote location. We have tried to make communications with on-scene fire and rescue, but there are no cell communications down there. Very difficult to get radio communications down there, so people on site – we actually have helicopters over the site, doing the search and rescue mission.
But we have not been able to talk to them yet.
The NRQZ is worse than a "very remote location." 13,000 square miles big, it's roughly the same size of Massachusetts. Plus Rhode Island. Plus Delaware. It's huge, and it is completely, entirely quiet, when it comes to things using radios. There are strict limits on the kind of communications allowed there.
You can drive in your car in certain parts and hear nothing but fuzz coming out of the speakers. Kooky people who think Internet waves are invading their minds like to move there, just to escape the electromagnetic horror.
Established in the 1950s as a silent haven not only for a radio astronomy observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, it's now become more commonly known as the home of the ominous-sounding Sugar Grove ECHELON Station.
Originally began with plans for a 600-foot wide telescope that would catch Soviet radio signals bouncing off the moon (seriously), it now comprises a significant component of the listening system rumored to be so powerful that it could intercept every single bit of communications emitted in the eastern United States, according to a New York Times article on the system.
And because it's so sensitive, it needs to be surrounded by all the quiet it can get. That means coordinating a rescue, any rescue, really, is extremely difficult.
Emergency responders are still allowed to use radios, of course, but thanks to the numerous mountains in the area, they don't reach very far. And if you're trying to coordinate a particularly large rescue, you're going to want to use cell phones, which won't be able to get service at all.
I tried contacting the 104th Fighter Wing to confirm if the pilot had indeed fallen into the NQRZ. They re-directed me to the cell phone of a Virginia State Police spokesperson, who was on the ground at the crash site.
I tried calling her cell phone.
It went straight to voicemail.
UPDATE: Commenter Earl Hoffert, Esq., says that he lived in the NQRZ, and that the entire quiet zone isn't completely silent, until you get closer to the observatory and Sugar Grove. Still pretty remote, however.
Photo credits: Google, Joel Bradshaw