Four Dead After Firefighting Plane Crashes in S.D.

Air National Guard Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon, Maj. Joe McCormick and Maj. Ryan Scott David killed after their C-130 crashed Sunday night in South Dakota's Black Hills.

About 1,400 men and women are based with the Charlotte National Guard unit. Most of them are from the Carolinas. The 145th Air Wing has ten C-130 aircraft.

Second run of the day

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 fire.

Mikeal's plane crashed about 8:30 p.m. MDT 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. 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.

The terrain of the crash site is "very, very rugged, straight up and straight down cliffs," said Frank Maynard, the Fall River County emergency management director.

'Difficult mission'

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, of the N.C. Air National Guard, 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, who served for 34 years with various federal agencies, working on fire suppression issues. "It's a difficult mission."

Staff writers Mark Washburn, Ely Portillo and Elisabeth Arriero, researchers Marion Paynter and Maria David, Washington Bureau reporter Franco Ordonez and the Associated Press contributed.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service