RAF LAKENHEATH, England — The four airmen killed in a helicopter crash earlier this month were remembered at a ceremony Friday as “amazing” people who touched many lives.
Capt. Christopher S. Stover, Capt. Sean M. Ruane, Tech. Sgt. Dale E. Mathews and Staff Sgt. Afton M. Ponce died when their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter went down during a low-flying exercise near the town of Salthouse, England, on Jan. 7.
Airmen and civilians at RAF Lakenheath gathered at RAF Lakenheath to pay their last respects to the fallen crewmembers.
Col. Kyle Robinson, commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, said during the ceremony the airmen died upholding the rescue creed: “These things we do that others may live.”
“They touched the lives of many and made the world a better place,” Robinson said during the ceremony.
The four served in the 56th Rescue Squadron at Lakenheath, a unit trained to conduct combat and humanitarian rescues. The unit supported defense forces in Iceland before coming to Lakenheath. Members of the 56th returned from a deployment to Afghanistan late in 2013.
The pilots of the helicopter, Stover and Ruane, had about 11 years of piloting experience between them and numerous deployments. Stover became an Air Force pilot in 2009 and deployed three times to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Mediterranean region. Ruane, an Air Force pilot since 2007, served as an instructor pilot for his first assignment and was deployed twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan.
Mathews, one of the special mission aviators on the flight, had served in the Air Force since 1994, deployed to Afghanistan, and was due to retire in a few months. While stationed at Lakenheath, he supported the no-fly zone over Libya.
Ponce, another special mission aviator, was on active duty since 2004 and served in the Air Force Honor Guard, participating in about 500 ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. She also assisted more than 125 children through a program for survivors of deceased airmen.
Lt. Col. Jared Herbert, commander of the 56th Rescue Squadron, described all four of them as “amazing” and said the squadron would continue their mission in honor of the four.
“This squadron will continue to take the fight to the enemy’s doorstep, and the 56th will not fail,” Herbert said. “They would not want it any other way.”
“I will be forever grateful for my interactions with Sean, Chris, Dale and Afton,” Herbert added. “Thank you to the families of these great warriors for raising and influencing such awesome individuals.”
Support for the families has been pouring in. A gofundme.com campaign to raise money for the families of the four has collected more than $41,000 in less than two weeks.
Lakenheath has received offers “too numerous to count” from organizations on and off base to help the families and other airmen, a Lakenheath spokesman said in an email.
“I would like to thank you all for your warmth and kindness,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen your support in so many forms this past week as the wing has come together to support the families and members of the 56th Rescue Squadron.