Pilot killed in Minnesota National Guard helicopter crash remembered
By MATT MCKINNEY, MARY LYNN SMITH AND LIZ SAWYER | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: December 7, 2019
MARTY, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — As a pilot with the Minnesota National Guard, Charlie Nord couldn't believe he was lucky enough to fly helicopters.
"When you're one of the dudes on the ground and you see the pilot, everyone looks up," said Parker Carignan, Nord's long time friend. "Charlie was excited to be that person who everyone looked up to."
Nord was piloting UH-60 Black Hawk on a routine maintenance test flight Thursday afternoon when it crashed in trees lining the edge of a Stearns County farm field. The 30-year-old pilot was killed along with two other soldiers on board.
The Minnesota National Guard identified the other men who were killed as Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class James A. Rogers Jr., 28, and Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg, 28.
Nord never talked about the dangers of flying, said Carignan, a veteran of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "He knew his skills would keep him up in the air."
But Thursday, something went very wrong.
The Black Hawk disappeared about 2 p.m. after taking off from the Army Aviation Flight Facility near the St. Cloud airport. According to emergency dispatch audio from Stearns County, the helicopter's crew sent a mayday alert nine minutes after takeoff.
Local and state emergency workers swarmed the area in an intensive search before a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter with thermal imaging cameras spotted the wreckage about 16 miles southwest of St. Cloud.
Investigators Friday began the task of trying to determine the cause of the crash and Gov. Tim Walz ordered flags to be flown at half-staff. Meanwhile, memorials at the crash site grew and the friends and families of the soldiers who died grappled with the loss of their loved ones.
As word trickled out among Nord's tight-knit group of friends and those at the Perham High School, the western Minnesota high school where Nord ran track and cross-country and graduated from in 2007, it hit hard.
Carignan was a year behind Nord in school but they were tight.
"He had a really big impact on who I was at an age when you don't realize how big people are in your life," said Carignan. "He was companion at a time when I needed a companion."
Nord was the person people wanted to be around because he was joyful, lived in the moment and found humor in even the toughest situations, Carignan said.
"He wasn't the type of person who stresses out about what was happening or what was to come," he said. "It's easy to be around people like Charlie."
Carignan said Nord joined the National Guard and worked on a dairy farm for a while before going to school to become an electrician. Working hard, he earned the chance to become a pilot, training for a couple of years at Fort Rucker in Alabama before returning to Minnesota, where he could be closer to relatives and raise a family.
He had a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, Carignan said. When he wasn't flying for the National Guard, he was piloting a helicopter dusting Minnesota cropland.
"He couldn't believe he was lucky enough to fly helicopters while other people went to work in cubicles," Carignan said.
After a stint flying choppers in the Middle East, Nord was eager to return. Carignan paused when asked why Nord would want to be deployed again.
"It's pride in doing your job," he said. "I think he was where he wanted to be. It's why this is hard."
Jeff Morris, math teacher and the cross-country and track coach at Perham High School, struggled with the news that Nord died Thursday.
"It's been a rough day," he said.
Nord was a long-distance runner who helped build the cross-country team's early success that eventually led to nine state titles. "He was the first group of believers and was part of a team that was going to be more like family," Morris said.
While Nord was in Alabama, he called Morris "out of the blue" to let him know he was married, expecting his first child and moving home to Perham.
In July, Nord told Morris he was building a house three doors down from his former coach. Nord and his family had been in the new house for a few months, Morris said.
"He said to me, 'I hope you stop by,' " Morris recalled. "Then life gets busy and you never stop by. ... This is really hard for me. It's really tough knowing they were right there. Suddenly you know how short life can be."
While Nord's family and friends grieved Friday, residents near the crash site stopped to plant an American flag in the soil.
"Kind of a sad, sad day," said John Wicker, a farmer and member of the local town board. "And there's nothing you can do. There is nothing anybody can do that would have changed the outcome."
Wicker said he heard that the bodies of the victims were removed by Friday morning. He was hoping to quickly establish an honor guard before that happened, but instead he and his son took the flag to the site and left it with a Stearns County Sheriff's deputy.
It's not unusual to see Black Hawks flying low through the area, he said. Local residents know there's a maintenance facility in nearby St. Cloud, and the helicopter pilots sometimes fly low over the area and perform maneuvers.
"There's more than one time I've thought, 'Is that thing all right?' " said Wicker. "I'm sure they're just testing them out, flying low or whatever ...
"You just kind of wonder what happened," he said. "Fifty feet to the south and they would have been in an empty field."
Staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.
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