Moving in solemn unison amid as much hush as Charlotte Douglas International Airport could muster, an N.C. Air National Guard honor guard carried four silver, flag-draped caskets from a military transport plane to waiting hearses Wednesday.
They were the remains of four airmen from the Charlotte-based 145 Airlift Wing killed July 1 in a crash while dumping retardant on a South Dakota wildfire.
With family looking on and about 350 members of their unit saluting, the caskets were removed in order of rank, one by one. First Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, followed by Maj. Joe McCormick, Maj. Ryan David and Senior Master Sgt. Robbie Cannon.
Afterward, the hearses were escorted by police to funeral homes in the men’s hometowns. Funerals begin Friday.
A C-130 from their Charlotte unit flew to Dover, Del., site of the military’s mortuary. It was given priority landing clearance on its return and operations at Charlotte Douglas were shifted to more distant runways for a time to provide a measure of calm for the grim tableau.
Charlotte’s Air Guard, with nearly 1,500 members, is one of four military units nationally that operates C-130 transports equipped for dumping slurry to halt the advance of wildfires like those vexing the arid West this summer. Called MAFFS, for modular airborne firefighting systems, the aircraft can be outfitted with a roll-on tank about the size of a delivery van that carries 3,000 gallons of liquid to remote fires.
July 1’s crash was the first in the 40-year history of fighting fires with C-130s equipped with MAFFS.
It was also the first fatal accident in the history of the 145th Airlift Wing, whose origins date to 1946 when an Air Guard base was authorized for North Carolina. Greensboro, centrally located, was the odds-on favorite for getting the base, but even in the early post-war days, Charlotte’s business community exerted considerable clout, and the city won the unit.
It was originally a base for fighter planes, not switching to military airlift until the 1960s.
In August 1956, Charlotte was excited by the arrival of an F-86-L fighter jet. It was the first faster-than-sound jet to be based here.
There were two accidents involving the wing in the 1950s.
In November 1956, Capt. Marvin Hunt of Mount Holly was approaching Charlotte Douglas when the engine failed on his fighter. He belly-landed it on the runway. It skidded more than a thousand feet, sparking all the way but never catching fire. Hunt climbed out unscratched when it finally stopped, the Observer reported then.
In June 1957, two pilots from the air wing walked away from the crash of a T-33 fighter while approaching Travis Field in Savannah, Ga. Neither was seriously hurt.
Six decades without a fatal accident is somewhat unusual for a unit that routinely flies missions into war zones. In 1967 alone, for example, the 145th flew 16 trips into Vietnam.
In more recent years, the unit has been called upon for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its last mission to Afghanistan ended in March.
MAFFS missions are considered especially tricky because the aircraft skims the ground at 150 to 300 feet while discharging its pressure-fed load. Gen. D. Todd Kelly, who oversees the unit and who has piloted MAFFS flights, said Wednesday that the 145th’s rigorous training and maintenance regimen is the reason its safety record has been so remarkable.
Charlotte’s MAFFS aircraft are the only ones based on the East Coast. Representatives from the other three MAFFS units – in Wyoming, Colorado and California – flew to the Charlotte base this week to attend a memorial service for the four dead airmen.
Two airmen in the rear of the C-130, both loadmasters operating the MAFFS unit, survived the crash and were hospitalized. They are Chief Master Sgt. Andy Huneycutt and Master Sgt. Josh Marlowe.