Before he died in a fighter jet crash this week, Capt. Eric Ziegler was an experienced test pilot who flew more than 300 combat hours on three deployments and had been picked to attend the elite weapons school at Nellis Air Force Base, base officials said Friday.
"Words can't express how much we'll miss Eric," Lt. Col. Ryan Suttlemyre, his commander at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, said in a statement.
"He was a special friend, a phenomenal husband and father, and a terrific aviator and officer. Our hearts go out to his family during this difficult time."
In the statement from Nellis confirming that Ziegler died in the Tuesday evening crash, the family of the 30-year-old pilot from North Dakota said he "was a man of character and faith who deeply loved his family as well as flying."
"His sense of humor, spontaneity, faith, zest for life, love of family and country are the hallmarks of his personality. He was a true son of the United States."
A private memorial service is planned for Tuesday at the base.
He is survived by his wife, Sarah, a former Air Force maintenance officer, and 9-month-old daughter, Anna.
A 2003 Air Force Academy graduate, he had served in the Iraq War and earned a master's degree last year. His decorations include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and an Aerial Achievement Medal.
In his hometown of West Fargo, N.D., his high school football coach, Jay Gibson, described him as a stellar student and athlete who helped guide his team to the 1999 state championship.
Air Force investigators have collected evidence from the crash site, 20 miles west of Caliente in Lincoln County, that confirms Ziegler didn't survive the crash. Although the crash site is on public Bureau of Land Management land, Ziegler was operating the F-16C Fighting Falcon within the 12,000 square miles of military airspace managed by the Nevada Test and Training Range.
Combined with his combat missions, Ziegler logged more than 1,200 flight hours primarily in the cockpit of F-16s.
His assignments included duties at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and most recently at Nellis.
Details about how the accident happened during what the 57th Wing commander has described a simulated "dogfight" in an air-to-air combat training exercise won't be released until the investigation is completed. He had departed from Nellis before he crashed about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Extensive ground and aerial searches for him were conducted until base officials announced they had conclusive evidence that he didn't survive the crash.
"For the next several weeks, a trained investigation board will focus its exclusive efforts on collecting and protecting evidence from the scene and gathering and analyzing all relevant data with the specific purpose of determining the cause so we may prevent future mishaps," said Brig. Gen. T.J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis.
"The safety of the local community and our airmen is my top priority."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.