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Nine months after a C-130 went down carrying crew members from the Charlotte-based Air National Guard 145th Airlift wing, the commander of the squadron, as well as other members of the Air National Guard, are talking about the impact it has had on their whole unit. Four men died. Two were severely injured.
"There's no real training for it," says Lt. Col. Brian Ratchford. "You just do the best you can. It's a life changing event. It's something you can never really forget. New emotions. New thoughts. It's better than it was 9 months ago, but it's not… I mean, it's always there. It's always just under the surface."
This is the first time the Air National Guard is discussing this crash publicly. Lt. Col. Ratchford spoke candidly with WBTV Anchor Molly Grantham in the middle of a Mooresville coffee shop, surrounded by fifty veterans. Why talk here? Because "Richard's Coffee Shop" invites veterans of all branches of service with open arms. For this particular conversation, men from many decades and wars looked on, none who had ever met Ratchford. They just knew talking about losing friends on a mission is hard.
Ratchford was seated in between two women, Lt. Col. Marty Dickens, the Commander of the 263rd Combat Communications Squad, and Lt. Col. Debbie Kidd, a staff Chaplain for the 145th Airlift. Lt. Col. Kidd was one of the chaplains called that night to give death notifications to families.
"That was probably the roughest thing I've done in my career," she said. "To have that scene play out in front of you, like you see in the movies. But we've stayed really connected to the families. Lots of visits. A lot of time you want to hold back the tears, but sharing the tears with them is important. It's really taking the toll now that it's NOT in headlines anymore. Going through Christmas and anniversaries and birthdays, or when the kids graduate high school. It's just hard."
Two planes left Charlotte June 30th, 2012 for South Dakota. They would join more than half the country's wildfire fighting agencies. Each plane – a C-130 Hercules – was equipped with something called MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System), a system designed to spray at low altitudes. It could drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in 5 seconds.
On Sunday, July 1st, after the tankers made two drops of fire retardant on the White Draw Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, one of the planes went down in the rocky terrain. The final investigative report said conditions were smoky and tough to fly. It also stated the propeller-driven plane crashed after flying into the severe wind, and the crew should've avoided an approaching storm.
It was the first fire-fighting C-130 to go down in the 40-year history of having C-130's equipped with MAFFS.
The man who died were Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, Major Joe McCormick of Belmont and Major Ryan Scott David of Boone.
"They were all great guys who I loved like brothers," said Lt. Col. Ratchford. "You hear, ‘Oh, an Air Force plane went down' or ‘Oh, an Air Guard crash and some guys got killed.' No. That's not it. They were neighbors and brothers and cousins and dads and husbands. And to us, they were dear friends and colleagues and professionals we knew to be aviators." He paused. "I was proud to serve with every single one of them. We still honor those guys in every way we can, as often as we can. In fact we have guys TODAY doing things for the survivors. Taking them to appointments. Out for lunch. That sort of thing. It doesn't go away."
Lt. Col. Marty Dickens says the punch hit every gut in her Stanly County Combat Communications Squad, whether they knew the men personally or not.
"It's not just a brotherhood in the cockpit or just in the flying squadron," she said. "It's all throughout the Wing. When we say TGIF, it doesn't mean 'Thank God it's Friday', it means 'The Guard is Family'."
For the record -- these three weren't talking with WBTV because they like the spotlight. They were talking, they said, because they wanted to show when the going gets tough in a military team... their team gets even tighter.
Like many Air National Guard units, this group has quite a history of missions. Just a few months before last summer's crash, they'd been serving months in Afghanistan. They've helped with Hurricane Katrina. Many members have been in war zones multiple times. Recently they were put on standby for Superstorm Sandy.
"I sent one email late on a Friday afternoon after Sandy hit," says Lt. Col. Dickens, "Within minutes I had a dozen responses of ‘I'll go', ‘I'll go', ‘I'll go… where do I need to be, when do I need to be there?'. I never have a problem getting volunteers. We all work together to make things happen."