North Carolina Pilots Fight Idaho Fires While Mourning Loss Of Colleagues

Aug 6, 2013

Crews from all over the West and Canada are in Idaho this summer to help fight the state’s wildfires.  Collaboration is common when it comes to fire suppression. But this summer’s roster also includes an east coast air tanker unit that’s still recovering from the deaths of four crew members last year.

North Carolina probably wouldn’t be the first place you’d go to find expert crews to battle wildfires in rugged terrain. “Well believe it or not, we do have mountains,” laughs Lt. Col. Harkey of the North Carolina Air National Guard. “We do have the Appalachian Mountains near us.”

Harkey pilots a C-130 Hercules tanker.  It’s equipped with the special Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, also known as MAFFS.

The Charlotte-based unit has been assisting with wildfire operations since the mid 1980s. But last summer in South Dakota, the unit lost four members in the nation’s first-ever C-130 firefighting crash. An Air Force investigation found the crew had flown into a small but intense storm that essentially pushed the plane to the ground. 

Harkey trained the four men who died and says each was a close friend. He gets choked up when he recalls what he says was a very somber time.

“I’ll never forget what they sacrificed and what they gave,” he says. “And we have two that survived that crash that are recovering even today.”

After the accident, all C-130 fire missions were put on hold while the federal government made sure the fleet was safe. Today, Harkey says he's glad to be in the West fighting fires again.  He still thinks every day about the aviators who died. 

Credit Scott Graf / Boise State Public Radio

"You want to get back into it because you want those guys' legacy to live on and you want the unit to recover,” Harkey says. “But at the same time, you do a lot of soul searching yourself and you realize this really is a challenging mission."

C-130s can drop 3,000 gallons of retardant at one time. But the planes are extremely heavy, slow, and fly in conditions pilots say are the most dangerous outside of military combat.

The North Carolina unit currently has about a dozen members based at the Boise airport.