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DEERFIELD, Va. - An F-15C fighter jet based at a National Guard facility in Massachusetts crashed Wednesday in a national forest in Virginia, an Air Force spokesperson said.

The jet is a one-person craft and the status of the pilot was not immediately known, Maj. Candice Ismirle said.

"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.

Authorities searching the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest near Deerfield, Va., were questioning a witness who reported seeing an ejection from the jet and a parachute, according to emergency scanner traffic. The witness' account could not be immediately confirmed.

A half dozen helicopters -- including at least two military choppers -- were looking for signs of a survivor.

The F-15C is part of the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. It flew out of the Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass.

Maj. Matthew Mutti, a spokesman for the 104th Fighter Wing, said a single pilot was flying the F-15 over the Shenandoah Valley when it crashed, the Los Angeles Times reports. The pilot was en route to a nearby base so that the plane could receive a "system upgrade."

The jet was on a standard training exercise with no munition onboard, Mutti said. He didn't say where it was headed or release the pilot's name.

Augusta County sheriff's office scanners said one ambulance was sent to the area. in the rugged national forest area.

Sheriff's Office dispatcher Becky Coynter says witnesses reported hearing a loud noise that sounded like an explosion just before 9 a.m. Wednesday. Coynter says military officials in Washington told local authorities that communication with a military jet had been lost.

Emergency responders approaching the scene had reported visible smoke on the horizon, the News Leader in Staunton, Va., said.

"I'm on location, with smoke, and we do have debris," said a breathless responder on emergency radio frequencies at 10:04 a.m. "I got debris everywhere... I haven't located anybody."

A news release from state police says officials located the crash site, with heavy smoke coming from the side of a mountain. The statement says state and local police are trying to reach the site. Police did not offer other details.

The fumes from the reported crash may be toxic, warn emergency officials.

"The fuel is supposed to be corrosive to human flesh," said the dispatcher. "These planes are made with radioactive material."

The 104th Fighter Wing supports Air Force wartime efforts, and organizes, trains and equips personnel to provide an operationally ready squadron to the Air Combat Command.

F-15s are maneuverable tactical fighters that can reach speeds up to 1,875 mph, according to the 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.

Residents hear crash

Lois and Taylor Cole were at their Deerfield home off of Marble Valley Road when they heard an explosion around 9:15 a.m.

Although the two could not see what had caused the crash, they saw smoke drifting over the trees near their property.

"We saw smoke but then it kind of blew away," Lois Cole told our partners at the News Leader. Her husband quickly got in his truck in an attempt to locate the scene to see if anyone needed help.

"I can still hear machinery, maybe chainsaws or a bulldozer," Cole said around 10:15 a.m. as she waited to hear back from her husband.

In Swoope, Casey Harris was watching television in her living room when she heard her glass front door shake loudly.

"The animals, they didn't bark, they just took off running," said Harris, who lives near Little Calf Pasture Highway, in the western part of Swoope near Craigsville.

Harris said her elderly parents who live next door, called worried that there had been an explosion or an earthquake.

"I didn't see anything," Harris said. "But if felt like the whole house shook."

Harris' husband is from Deerfield and friends of the family contacted Harris to share what had caused the shaking, a plane crash.

"I literally woke up feeling it crash...scary," is what Ashley-Brandon Brown of Deerfield posted on the News Leader's Facebook feed.

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

Contributing: The (Staunton, Va.) News Leader and USA TODAY

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