CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A C-130 Hercules tanker from a Charlotte, N.C.-based Air National Guard unit crashed late Sunday night while helping battle a wildfire in southwest South Dakota, according to U.S. military officials.
A Mooresville, N.C., man, Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, was killed in the crash, family members said.
The Air Force said in a statement that the plane was from the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Air Wing, adding that some crew members were injured and others killed. But it did not specify the number of survivors. Typically, the C-130 carries a crew of six.
Rescuers took three survivors to a hospital in Rapid City, S.D., according to authorities in South Dakota.
Air Force officials said the cause of the crash remains under investigation.
But a blogger at the website Wildfire Today cited a source with the U.S. Forest Service who said the plane ahead of Mikeal's C-130 experienced a severe downdraft while approaching the area where the Hercules was to have dropped a fire retardant.
The death of Mikeal, 42, was confirmed by his mother-in-law, Gracie Partridge. She said her daughter was contacted overnight. "They informed her about 2 or 2:30 this morning," she said.
The 145th Airlift Wing is operating two firefighting C-130 aircraft at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, as part of the military's effort to help the U.S. Forest Service battle wildfires that have burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
The Air Force announced Monday afternoon that the seven other firefighting C-130s are being grounded in the wake of the crash.
President Barack Obama said the firefighting crews "put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans."
"They are heroes who deserve the appreciation of a grateful nation," Obama said. "The crew of this flight - along with their families and loved ones - are in our thoughts and prayers."
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said in a statement that the "tragic loss underscores the risks and sacrifices our servicemen and women make on a daily basis. Whether home or aboard, they leave their families to keep us safe and protect our freedom."
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said the crash victims "gave their lives fighting the devastating wildfires that are threatening the lives and homes of countless Americans. They define what it is to be a hero."
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he was "terribly saddened to learn of the C-130 plane crash," adding that his "thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims who died in the crash, and to those still fighting for their lives."
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who represents Mikeal's district in Congress, said "Mikeal and his crew fought through dangerous conditions, trying to save the homes and lives of thousands of Americans. His courage and heroism will not be forgotten."
The two firefighting planes from the Charlotte unit, along with a third craft used for equipment and supplies, flew to the Colorado base Saturday. A spokesman for the 145th Airlift Wing said its aircraft were scheduled to move Monday to a base in Wyoming, so they could be closer to the scene of the fire.
Mikeal's plan crashed about 10:30 p.m. EDT Sunday while making its second run of the day in fighting the White Draw fire, which has charred more than 4,200 acres in an area about 90 miles southwest of Rapid City. Officials said the aircraft disappeared from radar. Details of the crash were not available, but the sheriff's office in Fall River County, S.D., told the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal that a rescue helicopter had been able to land near the crash scene.
That helicopter took three survivors to Rapid City Regional Airport, the sheriff's office said.
About 1,400 men and women are based with the Charlotte unit. Most of them are from the Carolinas. The 145th Air Wing has 10 C-130 aircraft.
The Charlotte-based Air National Guard crews are helping the Colorado, Wyoming and California national guard units in battling the Waldo Canyon and Flagstaff fires in Colorado; the Arapaho fire in Wyoming; and the White Draw blaze.
The planes are carrying the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, a self-contained firefighting system owned by the Forest Service. MAFFS can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in a matter of seconds, and the system can be refilled in 12 minutes. The C-130s have been making multiple flights in recent days for the Forest Service.
The C-130, a versatile four-engine plane built by Lockheed, has been widely used for fighting fires and for transporting military cargo and personnel.
Although the plane has a generally low accident rate, some older model C-130s have gone down while fighting fires.
In June 2003, a C-130A lost both its wings and crashed while fighting a wildfire in northern California. All three crew members died.
A C-130A also crashed in September 2000, while dumping water over a forest fire in southeastern France. Two of the four crew members were killed.
Fighting fires from the air is a dangerous business, says Gene Rogers, a wildland fire consultant from Oregon. Pilots must contend with hilly terrain, low-level turbulence, smoke and convections from the fire.
Over the past six decades in the United States, there have been an average of about 1.5 crashes a year involving large planes on firefighting missions, Rogers said.
"Flying a large aircraft anywhere from 150 feet to 300 feet over undulating terrain is outside the box of traditional pilot expectations," said Rogers, who served for 34 years with various federal agencies, working on fire suppression issues. "It's a difficult mission."
(Staff writer Franco Ordonez of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)
)2012 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
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