Firefighting Herc Went Down on Third Pass

An Air Force C-130 sprays fire retardent over a wildfire area in this file photo. The Air Force is grounding all firefighting-equipped C-130 planes after the fatal crash of one in southwestern South Dakota.
An Air Force C-130 sprays fire retardant over a wildfire area in this file photo. (U.S. Air Force photo)

EDGEMONT, S.D. -- New details emerged Wednesday about the final flight of a Charlotte-based C-130 that crashed Sunday while fighting a South Dakota wildfire.

Authorities said the aircraft, which had been helping firefighters battle the White Draw Fire in southwestern South Dakota, was on its third run to drop fire retardant when it went down.

Following a spotter aircraft, the C-130 from the N.C. Air National Guard made a practice run over the drop area. It then came in again, dropping retardant. It swung around and was making a third pass to empty its tank when it crashed.

Typically, the drops take about 15 minutes and then the aircraft return to their base.

Such drops are conducted at low altitude, usually 150 to 300 feet high, which leave pilots little room for maneuvers.

Winds had been hampering fire control efforts that day and authorities were concerned because a thunderstorm cell was approaching at the time of the crash, about 7 p.m. local time, said Timothy Norman, who is coordinating operations at the fire command post in Edgemont.

Mayor Jim Turner of Edgemont said he had not been to the crash site, which is not accessible by road and is in restricted airspace because of the fire. But he said he had heard from those who had that it appeared the pilot had chosen a flat stretch of mesa that had already been burned to set the aircraft down.

"It sounded like he tried everything he could to find a spot where there weren't trees and rocks," Turner said.

Killed in the crash were Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, Maj. Joe McCormick of Belmont and Maj. Ryan Scott David of Boone. Sgt. Josh Marlowe, who lives near Boiling Springs, remains hospitalized in Rapid City. A second survivor, as yet unidentified, was flown to the Jaycee Burn Center at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.

Turner, who flew on Air Force B-52s as a radar technician, said he wonders whether the aircraft hit a downdraft or its engines were fouled because of smoke or a lack of oxygen.

Authorities were aware of the disappearance of the plane almost immediately because a spotter watched it go into its run but never saw it come out. Also, the plane didn't return to the radar being monitored at the Rapid City airport about 75 miles away.

A command aircraft would have been circling high over the area, coordinating flights of three helicopters dumping water and the C-130 at the time.

A persistent story circulating among those familiar with the crash has one of the two surviving crewmen calling 911 after escaping from the wreckage to report their whereabouts. Falls River County's 911 center is operated by the sheriff's department, which referred questions to the military, which had no comment on the report.

An investigation is being conducted by the Air Force into the crash, but no findings have yet been released. A bulldozer is being used to cut a path to the crash site so investigators will have easier access.

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