UPDATE: Two US Air National Guard airmen were seriously injured and four lost their lives when a military C-130 plane equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) crashed while battling a fire in southwestern South Dakota, US at approximately 18:30 hrs on 1 July. The aircraft belonged to the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing. At the time of the accident, the crew was fighting the White Draw Fire near the town of Edgemont.
The men who lost their lives were named as pilot Lt Col Paul K. Mikeal, pilot Major Joseph M. McCormick, flight navigator Major Ryan S. David, flight engineer Senior Master Sgt Robert S. Cannon.
Air Force General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, stated: “We are deeply saddened that four of our outstanding airmen lost their lives while battling wildfires over the weekend in South Dakota. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to the family members and friends of those who were lost, and we wish a speedy and full recovery of those who survived this tragic event.”
Brig. Gen. Tony McMillan, commander of the 145th Airlift Wing, said: “Words cannot express how much we feel the loss of these airmen. Our prayers are with the families, as well as our injured brothers as they recover.”
US Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell said the agency was deeply saddened by the incident, adding: “The agency fully supports the decision by the military to stand-down its MAFFS operation to address the needs of personnel and families and ensure the safety of the mission when it resumes. The agency will continue to allocate available fire-fighting assets according to the prioritisation of incidents.”
Reacting to the news, Barack Obama, US president, released a statement describing the air crews battling wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region as ‘heroes who deserve the appreciation of a grateful nation’. He continued: “The men and women battling these terrible fires across the West put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans. The airmen who attack these fires from above repeatedly confront dangerous conditions in an effort to give firefighters on the ground a chance to contain these wildfires – to save homes, businesses, schools, and entire communities.”
The crash was the first in the MAFFS programme’s 40-year history, said the Department of Defense (DoD). MAFFS is a joint DoD and USFS programme that provides additional aerial fire-fighting resources when commercial and private air tankers are no longer able to meet the USFS’s needs.
On 2 July, all MAFFS-equipped C-130s were placed on operational hold, a move described by the USAF ‘as a prudent measure’. They resumed operations on 3 July.
An investigation into the cause of the crash is on-going.
Image: MAFFS 7, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing, pictured 30 June. USAF / Tech. Sgt Brian E. Christiansen