Fatal crash grounds key part of firefighting fleet
Monday, July 2, 2012
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The deadly crash of a military cargo plane fighting a South Dakota wildfire forced officials to ground seven other Air Force air tankers, removing critical firefighting aircraft from the skies during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.
The C-130 from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, N.C., was carrying a crew of six and fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota when it crashed Sunday, killing at least one crew member and injuring others.
The crash cut the number of large air tankers fighting this summer’s outbreak of wildfires by one-third.
The military put the remaining seven C-130s on an “operational hold,” keeping them on the ground indefinitely. That left 14 federally contracted heavy tankers available until investigators gain a better understanding of what caused the crash.
“You’ve basically lopped off eight air tankers immediately from your inventory, and that’s going to make it tougher to fight wildfires,” said Mike Archer, who distributes a daily newsletter of wildfire news.
“And who knows how long the planes will be down?” he said, adding that investigators will take time to make their conclusions.
A military spokesman said he did not know when the grounded planes would resume firefighting flights.
U.S. Forest Service officials said they weren’t immediately prepared to comment on whether they have enough aerial firefighting assets without the C-130s. The military planes were filling up with fire retardant and flying out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
They were used to fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.
The plane that crashed was fighting a fire about 80 miles southwest of Rapid City, S.D. 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.
Military officials declined to say whether anyone was killed, but they confirmed there were some crew members who were being treated for serious injuries at a hospital in Rapid City.
The family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., said they were told early Monday that he had died in the crash They said he was a 42-year-old married father of two and a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.