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Members of the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing will take part in fire fighting missions in the western part of the United States, nearly a month and a half after a plane crash killed four of the unit's members.
Two aircraft departed Charlotte Douglas International Airport Monday morning at 10 a.m.
According to the National Guard, the unit - based in Charlotte - will be deployed to Sacramento, California to support wildfire fighting efforts there.
"We're trained professionals, we do what we do, we're trained to focus to do the task at hand. However, those memories will always be with us of the friends we lost. It's more of a drive to continue the mission in their honor," said MAFFS pilot Lt. Col. Kevin Harkey.
The mission comes a month and a half after four of the unit's airmen died when their Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) equipped C-130 crashed while fighting a fire in southwestern South Dakota.
Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, 42, of Mooresville, N.C.; Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, 36, of Belmont, N.C.; Maj. Ryan S. David, 35, of Boone, N.C.; and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon, 50, of Charlotte, died in the crash.
"Our folks from Charlotte are ready to rejoin our MAFFS brothers and sisters," said Col. Roger Williams, 145th Airlift Wing Operations Group commander. "We all feel it's extremely important for our people to get back to this critical mission, and we will carry the memory of MAFFS 7 in our hearts as the wild land fire fighting continues."
"We certainly take personal feelings into account when selecting aircrews. We ask what their feelings are in relation to the timeline we're looking to go back," says Lt. Colonel Steve Mallette of the Air National Guard.
The 145th sent two aircraft and 16 airmen to California where they will fight fires at the direction of the U.S. Forest Service beginning Tuesday.
One aircraft will carry the MAFFS module and the other will transport equipment and maintenance specialists.
Three groups of North Carolina airmen will rotate from Charlotte to Sacramento and back during the mission, which is planned to run through early September.
Each MAFFS module has its own number. For the purposes of the mission, the aircraft carrying a particular module shares that module's number, which is emblazoned on its tail and fuselage.
MAFFS 7, operated by the 145th, was battling the White Draw fire in South Dakota on July 1 when it crashed killing four crew members and severely injuring two others. The unit retired the aircraft's U.S. Air Force tail number and the MAFFS 7 designator during a memorial ceremony held July 10 on base.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
The 145th will operate MAFFS 8 for the upcoming mission, which will allow a California Air National Guard aircraft to return to its home base for maintenance.
Lt. Colonel Mallette says "all of our aircrew and support are groomed professionals in what we do. We understand the seriousness of what we do also, and we also understand the risk of what we do day to day."
MAFFS is a joint Department of Defense and U.S. Forest Service program designed to provide additional aerial firefighting resources when commercial and private air tankers are no longer able to meet the needs of the forest service.
MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.