01:05 p.m. update: DENVER (AP) — The military says four crew members have died in the crash of an Air Force tanker plane that was fighting a fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The North Carolina Air National Guard said Tuesday the other two crew members were injured.
The dead are Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, Maj. Ryan S. David and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon. All were from North Carolina.
The crash prompted the military to temporarily ground the seven remaining Air Force tankers used in firefighting.
Six tankers were cleared to resume flying Tuesday. The seventh, which was also part of the North Carolina Air National Guard, returned to its home base.
9:05 a.m. update: City and state flags will fly at half-staff Tuesday across North Carolina, in tribute to the Charlotte-based Air National Guard members who were killed in the crash of their C-130 cargo plane Sunday night in a firefighting mission in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
At least three crew members were killed, according to family members and local officials, but several published and broadcast reports Tuesday said the death toll was four.
The plane carried a crew of six.
The Air Force is expected to provide more details on the crash and the casualty toll during a news conference Tuesday.
Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, N.C., and Joe McCormick of Belmont, N.C., were among those who died, according to family members and local officials.
Josh Marlowe of Shelby, N.C., was seriously injured in the crash and in a South Dakota hospital, his mother-in-law told the Observer.
Original story: At least two men died when their Charlotte, N.C.-based Air National Guard cargo plane crashed while fighting the White Draw Fire, family members said Monday.
Their C-130 plane was pressed into service to help fight wildfires that have burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
In North Carolina, family members confirmed Monday that Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., and Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte were among those who died, the Charlotte Observer reported. Josh Marlowe of Shelby, N.C., was seriously injured in the crash and was in a South Dakota hospital, his mother-in-law told the Observer.
An Edgemont resident who lives near the site where the aerial firefight was being staged believes he saw the plane’s final moments on Sunday. Dave Augustine was on his front porch atop a hill in Edgemont, watching the smoke rise from the fire, about 5 miles in the distance. He spotted a large aircraft he hadn’t seen before fly by. He watched it dip behind the smoke. It never came back up. Then, smoke drifted up from the fire, darker and heavier. Through his binoculars, Augustine watched the smoke rise and never again saw the plane.
“About the time it should have come up, the fire got really active," said Augustine, 68, who is a pilot.
"I guess I didn't want to believe it," he said.
His home is adjacent to a patch of land where the helicopters fighting the blaze are temporarily stationed. His view is clear and unblocked. He believes what he saw was the C-130 plane moments before it crashed into gentle rolling hills.
In the wake of the crash, the Air Force on Monday grounded seven other firefighting C-130s, removing critical equipment from the skies during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever in the West.
Air Force officials say the cause of the crash remains under investigation. But a blogger at the website Wildfire Today cited information from the U.S. Forest Service indicating that a plane flying ahead of the C-130 experienced a "severe downdraft" while approaching the area where the planes had been assigned to drop fire retardant.
The plane that went down, a C-130H3, was manufactured in 1993, according to First Lt. Michael Wilber, a spokesman for the N.C. National Guard.
The maintenance crew found no mechanical deficiencies on the plane the last time it was on the ground, Wilber said.
The planes were carrying the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS), 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. Those planes, which made multiple flights in recent days, typically aren’t deployed unless the rest of the Forest Service’s firefighting fleet is occupied.
Air Force officials offered little other information on Monday, and details about the crash have been slow to emerge. At a news conference in Charlotte on Monday, the Air Force said six had been aboard the plane but did not specify the number of survivors or identify those killed. All six were experienced crewmen who had drilled in fire missions, according to Lt. Col. Robert Carter of the N.C. Air National Guard.
On Sunday, Fall River County authorities had said that three survivors of the crash were treated at Rapid City Regional Hospital. However, the family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal said there were informed early Monday of his death, and Mikeal's father-in-law, Ronald Partridge, said military officers told the family that only two crew members had survived.
The C-130, a versatile four-engine plane built by Lockheed Martin, 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 battling 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.
Carter said this is the first crash of a C-130 equipped with a MAFFS unit in the 40 years the C-130s have been fighting fires.
But battling fires from the air is a dangerous business, says Gene Rogers, a wildfire consultant from Oregon. Pilots must contend with smoke, hilly terrain, convection drafts and low-altitude turbulence. 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. “It’s a difficult mission.”