Before he made it to high school, Sean Ruane knew he wanted to be a military pilot. Years later, with his first flight aboard a helicopter, he was certain jets wouldn't be in his future.
“He told me he chose helicopters for the rescue aspect. He said he wanted to help our troops,” Michael Ruane of Kennedy Township, Pa., said Wednesday about his son. “As he put it, he wanted to pull their fat out of the fire.”
Ruane, 31, an Air Force captain, died Tuesday during a training exercise on the Norfolk coast of England, where he was stationed at Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath. A HH-6DG Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in a nature reserve, killing all four crew members. Others who died were Capt. Christopher S. Stover of Vancouver, Wash., a fellow pilot, along with Tech. Sgt. Dale E. Mathews of Rolling Prairie, Ind., and Staff Sgt. Afton M. Ponce, whose hometown was not immediately available. Mathews and Ponce were special mission aviators.
The crash is under investigation.
“We continue to think of the loved ones who are experiencing such a tragic, sudden loss,” Col. Kyle Robinson, the 48th Fighter Wing commander, said in a statement. “The Liberty Wing feels as though it has lost members of its family, and we stand by to support one another and these airmen's families during this difficult time.”
Ruane graduated from Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pa., in 2000. He passed on a potential appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where, years before, his father had taken him to attend a flight camp program for high school students.
Father again accompanied son before the start of his first semester at Embry-Riddle.
“‘Dad, I've dreamed about this all my life,'” Michael Ruane recalled his son telling him that day. “It meant so much for us to help him achieve his dreams.”
After college, the Air Force stationed Ruane in Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama. He was assigned to England in 2011, the year he married Rachel Roderer of Stewartsville, N.J.
Air Force officials on Tuesday notified Ruane's wife of his death at the rural English farmhouse where they lived with their 14-month-old son, Liam.
Michael Ruane, 60, received the call he had feared during his son's five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan while on the job at Shenango Inc. The elder Ruane has worked at the Neville Island coke plant for 41 years, and his son spent college breaks working there on the ovens. His guard was down, and he was not expecting such a call, he said.
“We were happy when he was in England,” the teary-eyed father said, photographs of his son strewn before him on the dining-room table.
A just-in-case letter his son wrote sat folded nearby.
In it, Ruane joked about having a Yuengling beer with friends he hadn't seen in a while, detailed some of his final wishes and told his father that he was his hero.
“He made me a better man,” Michael Ruane said.
Ruane wrote similar letters to his mother, Marcia, and sister, Katie.
The family soon will fly to England to attend a memorial service. They hope to have a similar service in Pittsburgh but haven't finalized the details.
“He loved his family; that was first,” Michael Ruane said. “He loved his country. He felt a duty to serve. And he loved life.”