SPRINGVILLE -- A California Department of Forestry "spotter" plane crashed deep into the Sierra Nevada Wednesday morning, killing the two men on board.
CDF Battalion Chief Robert Paul Stone and DynCorp pilot George "Sandy" Willett were killed when their plane went down in the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest shortly after 10 a.m., CDF spokeswoman Becky Redwine said, holding back tears.
Fire crews were battling a blaze late Wednesday that started as a result of the downed aircraft, and multiple agencies were investigating what is believed to be the first air-related accident in CDF history.
Stone and Willett are believed to be the first Tulare County-CDF employees killed in the line of duty.
"We lost two of our family, and it hurts," Redwine said. "Everyone is still very shocked and emotionally affected by today's events."
The crew aboard the fixed-winged OV-10 aircraft was checking on an early morning fire, when the plane went down at about 10:45 a.m. on a ridge between the Frazier Mill campground and Hedrick Pond.
Redwine said there was no contact with the two men before the crash.
A number of post-Labor Day campers at Balch Park heard the impact and said they heard what sounded like "a huge explosion."
"It either was a plane crash or a tree falling," said Curtis Tritch, who was camping at a pond east of the crash site. "It sounded like a chain saw, like someone was sawing a tree, because you could hear the motor, and then you could just hear that explosion."
Judy Price of Lindsay said she heard a loud boom, and minutes later chaos ensued.
"I heard of boom ... then I heard sirens and all types of fire trucks," Price said. "I had never seen anything like this up here."
The explosion sparked a blaze along the ridge. The fire, called the Brown Fire, was the fourth blaze in the area over the Labor Day weekend.
CDF investigators confirmed the first two fires - the Jaguar and Camp fires - were man-made.
CDF crews from the Mountain Home Conservation Camp responded to eyewitness reports of the plane crash and the fire at about 11 a.m.
By 11:30 a.m. more than three dozen inmates and firefighters were staged on Bear Creek Road one mile north of the Balch Park campground.
In total, more than 75 firefighters responded to the fire and crash.
Willett and Stone's families were notified of the crash by a CDF liaison, Redwine said.
Crew members had to hike down to the crash site to fight the fire, Redwine said.
"They had to put out the fires at the plane itself in order to determine the bodies," Redwine said.
CDF helicopters rigged with buckets doused the flames on numerous attack runs.
While Tulare County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue crews were dispatched to the scene, officials braced for the worst, Redwine said.
"I was at the Tulare County Fairgrounds when chief called and told me that one of our planes went down and that the crew may have died," Redwine said. "I told him don't tell me who, because I wanted to be able to truthfully tell people that I didn't know."
By late Wednesday afternoon, the worst was confirmed - Stone and Willett were dead.
Battalion Chief Mike Davidson identified the two men, Redwine said.
CDF crews from neighboring counties continued to fight the five-acre fire late into the afternoon.
They replaced local crews, many of whose members were physically and emotionally drained, Redwine said.
"When this kind of thing happens, it's huge," Redwine said.
CDF officials said they are perplexed as to the cause of the accident, as the aircraft - which is based at the Porterville Municipal Airport - showed no signs of problems prior to takeoff.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and CDF Accident Investigation will try to determine the cause in the coming days.
There are 14 OV-10 aircraft used throughout the state. The fleet has an outstanding safety record, CDF Battalion Chief Rick Moore said.
In his 32 years in CDF, he said he can't recall a plane crash involving a spotter plane.
"They have been a very reliable instrument for the department," Moore said. "I feel very comfortable flying them, and I think others will say the same about them."
CDF has owned the Vietnam-era, twin-engine "Bronco" fleet for more than 25 years, Moore said.
The "air tactical group supervisor," the formal name for a "spotter" plane, coordinates area rescue efforts and air traffic control on a CDF incident, Moore said.
The plane that crashed Wednesday handled air reconnaissance for the entire county.
It was likely in the air every day this week, Moore said, as the agency has dealt with a number of fires during the Labor Day weekend.
Because of the nature of the usage, maintenance on the planes is constantly ongoing, Moore said.
"I know for a fact that when you land, a mechanic is sitting there, asking you how the flight was, if you had any problems," Moore said. "Maintenance is happening constantly, every hour the mechanics are looking at something."
The fleet's pilots - contracted from Texas-based DynCorp International -- are also well-trained, logging hundreds of individual flight hours, Moore said.
"Most of the pilots are ex-military, so they get a lot of training before coming to us," Moore said. "I can't say for sure how many hours this pilot had, but it's probably a bunch."
Planes from neighboring CDF air-attack bases will cover Tulare County incidents for the time being, Moore said.
"It's the same thing when we swap out fire crews, we will use ones from neighboring counties," Moore said. "They've already used planes from nearby counties today."
About the men
Stone, 36, was a Visalia resident and an 18-year CDF employee.
Redwine said the battalion chief was popular among his colleagues.
"Robert was well-liked and had a lot of friends, we all knew him," Redwine said. "He's got little kids."
Stone is survived by his wife, Mary Marinda "Rindi" Stone, and his two children; Wil, 8, and Libbie, 4.
Willett, 52, a Hanford resident, was a DynCorp pilot for four years.
He is survived by his wife, Judy, of Hanford.
"I don't know the pilot as well, but he was with the department, he's family," Redwine said.
The department, Moore said, will lose two dedicated workers.
"They were family-oriented individuals who had a phenomenal love for their job," Moore said.
Republished with permission of The Porterville Recorder