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South Dakota salutes fallen N.C. airmen

Four airmen from the Charlotte-based 145th Airlift Wing of the N.C. Air National Guard were memorialized Monday near Edgemont, S.D., a year after their C-130 crashed while fighting a wildfire in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Charley Najacht, editor and publisher of the Custer County Chronicle in Custer, S.D., and who retired with the rank of colonel after 31 years in the Army National Guard, was instrumental in raising money to get the memorial built. He filed this report on Monday’s ceremonies:

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By Charley Najacht

Custer County Chronicle

EDGEMONT, S.D. – “It’s impossible for any words to pass through my lips to thank you enough,” S.D. Lt. Gov. Matt Michels told family members of the N.C. Air National Guard C-130 crew who were killed or injured in a crash in the Southern Black Hills last July 1.

“I want to tell you that your family members will always be remembered. I really want you to remember this place and that we, the people of South Dakota, love you. This site was built to honor them and to comfort you,” Michels said.

Michels and other dignitaries spoke at an Interpretive Site Dedication Ceremony held a year to the date after the crash last year that killed four of the six crew members and critically injured two others.

Guard members from both states, along with local dignitaries, attended the 11 a.m. ceremony at the site. The list of those invited was limited to 100 because of the small size of the area.

Two interpretive signs were unveiled, one telling the story of the C-130 firefighting crew and the other telling about the White Draw Fire itself.

From the site, the area where the plane went down about is visible two miles to the west.

The 6:30 p.m. accident that day was found the be caused by severe downdraft that caused the low-flying aircraft to crash.

Killed were pilot Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, Mooresville, N.C.; pilot Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, Belmont, N.C.; navigator Maj. Ryan S. David, Boone, N.C.; and flight engineer Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon, Charlotte, N.C.

Master Sgt. Josh Marlowe, Shelby, N.C., was flown by helicopter to Rapid City Regional Hospital with unspecified injuries, as was Chief Master Sgt. Andy Huneycutt, who was present at the ceremony Monday. He was then flown to the Jaycee Burn Center Memorial Hospital at Chapel Hill, N.C.

Both survivors were in the rear of the four-engine aircraft operating a U.S. Forest Service-owned Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) fighting the White Draw Fire about five miles north of Edgemont. The burned 9,000 acres of dry pine timber.

All the airmen were members of the N.C. Air National Guard 145th Airlift Wing, based in Charlotte.

Huneycutt, a 33-year Guard member, was accompanied by his brother, Col. Newt Huneycutt and Col. Huneycutt’s two sons, Jeremy and Jesse, all members of the 145th Airlift Wing, the latter two being third-generation Guard members.

Andy Huneycutt said the crew had been all over the world together. It was important for him to be at the ceremony because “this is where my friends died.”

Marlo Mikeal, widow of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, was there with her mother and two children, Liam and Amanda.

“It means the world to me that they are being remembered,” Marlo said. “Paul was an incredible man all the way around. I was very lucky to have him in my life,” she said.

Melanie Cannon, widow of Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon, a 29 year Guard veteran, said, “It’s overwhelming. It means so much to us that people would contribute to this.” She was there with her children Alex and Madeline, along with her in-laws, James and Sandy Russ.

Jenny Elerbe, wife of Maj. Ryan David, said her husband always looked forward to flying missions, especially those in this country that benefited Americans.

Maj. McCormick was represented by his mother, Sharon Hardee, and step-father Audie Hardee, Conway, S.C.

All of the crew members had been on several lengthy deployments to either Iraq or Afghanistan, or both.

Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, N.C. Guard Adjutant General, said the crew “volunteered to serve their fellow Americans.” He continued, “None took off that day thinking they were heroes.”

Lusk thanked the state of South Dakota and its National Guard for what they did to build the interpretive site in remembrance of the North Carolina Guard crew members. “The citizens of North Carolina and South Dakota will forever share a sacred bond,” Lusk said.

The interpretive site is a pullout area along the west side of Highway 18 in southwestern South Dakota.

A White Draw Memorial Fund was established at a nearby Custer bank to pay for construction material expenses and for future site maintenance. The site property and signs were procured by the U.S. Forest Service. Work on the site itself was done by S.D. Army National Guard engineer units in the Black Hills.

Nearly $3,900 in donations thus far range from $10 to $2,300, the latter check written by a retired Custer Air Force officer, Hank Whitney, who flew on C-130s near the Russian border.

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Najacht also reported on a lingering mystery of the crash: a report that one of the crewmen was able to dial 911 after the plane went down to summon assistance.

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By Charley Najacht

Custer County Chronicle

Chief Master Sgt. Andy Huneycutt of the N.C. Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing in Charlotte doesn’t remember much after the C-130 Hercules he was flying in crashed last July 1.

Huneycutt, of Lancaster, S.C., and Master Sgt. Josh Marlowe, of Belmont, N.C., were in the rear of the aircraft. The two were the only surviving members of the six-man crew.

“I remember being in the aircraft and then out of the aircraft,” Huneycutt said. He doesn’t remember what happened in between or how he got out of the aircraft.

He did have his cell phone with him and immediately dialed 911.

Becky Sotherland, Fall River County 911 dispatcher in Hot Springs, about 20 miles away from the crash site, was on the receiving end of that call.

“He said he was in a plane that crashed. At first I thought it was a small plane,” Sotherland said. “Then he said it was a C-130. I knew they were flying in the area fighting the fire ...

“When a 911 call comes in, we can pinpoint where it is coming from. I lost him on the phone a couple of times, but finally did locate him,” she said.

A helicopter landed near the crash site and pick up both Huneycutt and Marlowe.

Huneycutt met Sotherland for the first time at an Interpretive Site Dedication Ceremony held Monday, about two miles to the east of the crash site along Highway 18.

“We absolutely have a life-long bond,” said Huneycutt. “She’s awesome. She saved our lives.”

Charley Najacht: cnajacht@gmail.com
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