Firefighting Crash Kills Four National Guard Airmen

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, July 4, 2012 (ENS) – Four airmen from the North Carolina Air National Guard were killed and two others were seriously injured when a plane equipped with a firefighting system crashed Sunday evening while battling a woodland wildfire in South Dakota.

The airmen belonged to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard, based in Charlotte. They were aboard a C-130 plane fitted with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, MAFFS, according to the North Carolina Air National Guard.

MAFFS is a joint Department of Defense and U.S. Forest Service program that provides additional aerial firefighting resources when commercial and private air tankers are no longer able to meet the needs of the Forest Service.

All of those killed were from North Carolina. Dead are Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, 42, of Mooresville; Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, 36, of Belmont; Maj. Ryan S. David, 35, of Boone; and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon, 50, of Charlotte.

Air National Guard C-130 Hercules equipped with modular airborne firefighting system drops retardant on a wildfire. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Daryl McKamey courtesy U.S. Air Force)

“Words can’t express how much we feel the loss of these airmen,” said Brig. Gen. Tony McMillan, 145th AW Commander. “Our prayers are with their families, as well as our injured brothers as they recover.”

Both of the injured airmen remain hospitalized; their names will not be released.

Mikeal was assigned to the 156th Airlift Squadron as an evaluator pilot and had more than 20 years of service. He leaves behind a wife and two children.

McCormick was an instructor pilot and chief of training for the 156th Airlift Squadron. He was married with four children.

David was an experienced navigator and was also assigned to the 156th. He joined the North Carolina Air National Guard in 2011 after prior service in the active-duty U.S. Air Force. He is survived by his wife and one child.

Cannon had more than 29 years with the Charlotte unit and was a flight engineer with the 145th Operations Support Flight. He was married with two children.

The crew and its aircraft along with two other 145th C-130s and three dozen airmen flew from Charlotte to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Saturday to assist with fighting forest fires in the Rocky Mountain region.

They were due to move to a base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Monday. The crash occurred around 6:30 p.m. mountain time near Edgemont, South Dakota, as the crew assisted with battling the White Draw fire. The cause of the crash is unknown and is under investigation.

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue ordered flags to be flown at half staff Tuesday and President Barack Obama expressed condolences honoring the dead airmen.

MAFFS missions were grounded on the weekend as authorities investigated the crash.

The Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command announced that the MAFFS fleet resumed operations Tuesday in support of the National Interagency Fire Center and its firefighters on the front lines in several states.

On Tuesday, the C-130 MAFFS completed 16 air drops on the Squirrel Creek fire in Wyoming, releasing some 41,250 gallons of fire retardant.

“The support of civil authorities during natural disasters is a key and unique mission of the National Guard,” said Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, the adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard.

“The MAFFS mission is probably one of the seminal missions of the Air National Guard, representing interagency coordination between the Guard and the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense organizations to suppress the fires,” said Lusk.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Retardant is discharged along the leading edge of a fire while water can be dropped directly on the flames. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

According to Forest Service records, the agency has been working with the North Carolina Air National Guard on fire suppression missions since the early 1970s.

“We are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we continue to have adequate air tanker capability as we experience very challenging wildfire conditions in Colorado and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability, with now 21 large air tankers and over 300 helicopters, is critical to provide support to, and enhance the safety of, the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to suppress these wildfires.”

Firefighters, in the face of adverse weather and difficult terrain, continue to combat the 18,247 acre Waldo Canyon fire, now about 80 percent contained. More than 1,280 federal, state and local firefighters, more than 40 fire engines and four helicopters are battling the blaze today in the hillsides west of Colorado Springs. Started June 23, the Waldo Canyon fire has claimed two lives, destroyed hundreds of buildings and forced the evacuation of at least 34,000 area residents. To date, it has cost $13.6 million to contain.

As the Waldo Canyon Fire becomes more contained, crews and equipment are being staged to respond to other wildfires across the region.

For earlier ENS coverage of this incident, see: Military Firefighting Plane Crashes, Killing Undisclosed Number

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