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Air Force pilot, a West Fargo native, dies during combat training mission

Air Force Capt. Eric Ziegler give a student a high five during a Nov. 10, 2010, visit to South Elementary in West Fargo. Ziegler's F-16 crashed June 29, 2011, in a training exercise near Las Vegas, Nev., and Air Force officials confirmed his death Thursday. He is a 1999 graduate of West Fargo High. David Samson / The Forum

WEST FARGO, N.D. - A West Fargo native was killed Tuesday during a combat training accident near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, friends of the family confirmed today.

Air Force Capt. Eric Ziegler, 30, was a 1999 graduate of West Fargo High School.

He leaves behind a 9-month-old daughter, Anna, and his wife, Sarah, a Fargo native who also works for the Air Force in Las Vegas.

The Air Force reported Tuesday that a pilot had gone missing after his F-16 crashed near Caliente, Nev., about 150 miles north of Nellis Air Force base in Las Vegas.

The pilot was reportedly engaged in a "dogfight" combat training exercise with another aircraft when the crash occurred.

Air Force personnel launched a search-and-rescue mission to find the missing pilot and confirmed his death this morning.

"We have started an investigation into this mishap; but we are in the very early stages of this investigation," said Brig. Gen. T.J. O'Shaughnessy, 57th Wing commander. "For the next several weeks, a trained investigation board will focus their 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."

The Air Force will not confirm Ziegler's identity as the deceased pilot for at least 24 hours, pending notification of his family.

However, word of fatal crash quickly spread through the West Fargo community this morning, and a woman who answered the phone at his mother's home confirmed Ziegler's death.

Ziegler, a 2003 Air Force Academy graduate, previously served two tours in Iraq.

He was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base last year, after being stationed in Spangdahlen, Germany, for three years.

Although he's lived away from his hometown for several years, Ziegler left an impact on many who knew him.

During his years at West Fargo High in the late 1990s, Ziegler played under the school's longtime head football coach, Jay Gibson, who heard it from his son via text.

Ziegler started on both offense and defense and played on special teams - meaning he was on the field virtually the whole game, Gibson recalled today.

"He was a tremendous competitor," Gibson said. "He really wanted to win, but whether he won or lost, he always had a smile on his face."

Gibson said Ziegler was a leader among his teammates, and he remembers how Ziegler's competitive drive motivated his peers.

"That leadership carried over to the rest of the team because he just worked hard - no matter what he did he put 110 percent effort into it," Gibson said.

As a senior, Ziegler helped lead his team to the North Dakota state championship in 1999, Gibson said.

"It's just a shock," he said. "It's not fair because these are the guys that should be around forever - because they take care of other people, they take care of themselves, and they lead and they do the right thing."

"It's a tremendous loss to the community," Gibson added.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.