AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy - The 31st Fighter Wing launched several of its F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft this afternoon to join the ongoing search effort for a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who was declared missing during a nighttime training mission Jan. 28.<br /> <br /> The fighter jets will provide further assistance to the robust rescue operation already underway, joining U.S. and Italian aircraft and ships. Capt. Lucas Gruenther, 31st Fighter Wing chief of flight safety, was conducting an F-16 training sortie over the Adriatic Sea when contact was lost with his aircraft. <br /> <br /> "While not specifically designed for reconnaissance like the other aircraft already involved in the search, our F-16s have targeting pods which can be used to augment the search," said Brig. Gen Scott J. Zobrist, 31st Fighter Wing commander. "The weather and size of the search area have limited our ability to provide assistance with F-16s up to this point; however, now that the ships and reconnaissance aircraft have refined the search area, we hope to help by putting more sensors and eyes out there.<br /> <br /> "The search operation in the Adriatic is truly expansive," Zobrist added. "I'm grateful to the many Italian and U.S. professionals who are executing this mission, and I am hopeful that we will bring Captain Gruenther home safely."<br /> <br /> More information will be released as it becomes available. A board of officers will investigate the incident.