CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina Air National Guardsmen went back to fighting wildfires Monday. It is their first mission since four members of the 145th Airlift Wing died while fighting a fire in South Dakota.
The C-130's took off at Charlotte Douglass International Airport, and the guardsmen getting on them are part of a dual mission: Fight wildfires in the west and honor their friends who were the last to fly this mission.
Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Maj. Joseph McCormick of Belmont, Maj. Ryan David of Boone and Senior Master Sergeant Robert Cannon of Charlotte all died June 1 when their C-130 crashed while fighting a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The plane was flying at low altitudes, flying slow and dumping tons of fire retardant or water. The 145th is one of only four units in the country with specialized equipment attached to C-130’s used to fight fires.
Why it crashed is still under investigation.
"It's an emotional time for all of us,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Harkey. "They were very dear friends. We miss them. Their spirit is going to continue to live with us and one of the driving forces for me today is to go out and continue living their legacy."
Harkey has been flying these types of missions for 16 years. He's trained too many times to count.
He's also talked to his family about the risks, the loss and the emotion that comes with flying after that accident that killed his friend, plus the bit of apprehension that comes with each mission.
"I tell my wife I could fall out the door on the way to work as easy as you could crash an airplane," Harkey added. "It's my job and I have to step up and lead and do that mission.”
The 145th Airlift Wing is sending two C-130's and 16 airmen to McClellan Airfield near Sacramento, California. Crews will step in for California’s 146th Airlift Wing so their specially-equipped C-130 can undergo routine maintenance.
The mission lasts through September 4.