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Military crash kills 21; 3 from Lakeland

The Florida Army National Guard plane was taking a Virginia civil engineering squad home after training.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

UNADILLA, Ga. -- A plane carrying members of a Virginia Air National Guard engineering squadron and three crew members from Lakeland crashed and burst into flames in a farm field Saturday, killing all 21 people on board, officials said.

Military officials said the C-23 Sherpa, a troop and cargo transport plane, crashed about an hour after taking off at 9:57 a.m. from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach. The plane was on its way to Oceana Naval Air Station, Va., when it went down about 45 miles south of Macon.

Bad weather and knee-deep mud hindered efforts to remove bodies from the aircraft. The victims' remains likely would not be removed before today, officials said. The identities of those killed were being withheld until next of kin could be notified.

Maj. Gen. Ronald Harrison, commander of the Florida National Guard, said the flight was a "routine mission" transporting 18 members of the Virginia Air National Guard from a two-week training exercise at Hurlburt Field to their home base.

A Florida Army National Guard spokesman said the three members of the flight crew, part of the 171st Aviation Battalion in Lakeland, had flown together extensively.

The C-23 Sherpa aircraft, a vintage 1970s twin-prop, has been assigned to the 171st Aviation Battalion since 1998 and had previously been assigned to another guard unit, John Myatt, the spokesman, said. The battalion has nine pilots.

Myatt said the plane has had no serious safety problems or reported defects in the time it has been assigned to Lakeland.

"The plane is a real workhorse," he said. "They're generally considered very safe planes, as are most turboprops."

The C-23 Sherpa is one of two assigned to the 171st Battalion. Myatt said the second plane has been grounded as a precaution until an investigation into the crash is completed.

"We're making a preemptive strike," he said.

The Sherpa that crashed left Lakeland early Saturday morning with just its pilot and two crew members after fueling up in the Central Florida city. It then flew without any reports of problems to Hurlburt Field, where it picked up its 18 passengers, Myatt said.

The passengers were members of the 203rd Red Horse Squadron of the Virginia Air National Guard, returning home after working on construction projects at Hurlburt Field as part of their annual training.

The Red Horse squadrons are rapidly deployable civil engineering units that can erect tent cities and other facilities for troops in the field.

"They have plumbers, electricians, cooks," Air Force Capt. Carol Kanode said. "They have everything you need to set up from nothing."

Late Saturday, families of the victims began to gather at the Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, where the unit is based.

"It's painful," said Lt. Col. Chester Carter, who traveled to Camp Pendleton with Maj. Gen. Claude A. Williams, the state's adjutant general, immediately after receiving word of the crash.

"The families are our main focus and concern right now," Carter said.

President Bush said he was deeply saddened at news of the crash.

"This tragic loss on a routine training mission reminds us of the sacrifices made each and every day by all of our men and women in uniform," Bush said in a statement. "The price of freedom is never free. Today's events remind us that it is sometimes unspeakably high."

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and an accident investigation team from the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., were on their way to the crash scene late Saturday.

John Birdsong, a spokesman for Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., which had been tracking the flight, said there was no emergency call from the plane before it went down.

Dooly County Sheriff Van Peavy said low clouds and a drizzling rain that had fallen throughout the previous night turned into a heavy downpour about five minutes after the crash. Meteorologists with the Weather Channel said there were thundershowers and heavy rain in the area at the time.

Peavy said several eyewitnesses told him the plane appeared to glide down before the crash.

"They describe the plane as dropping down and they watched it get lower and lower, then heard the crash when it hit the ground," Peavy said.

Dennis Posey could describe the sound he heard from the sky Saturday morning only as "a scream." Moments later, said Posey, 46, he received a call over a two-way radio from his father at another house on their farm. A plane had crashed in a former cotton field across the road from their land. Posey jumped in his pickup truck and drove the 1 mile from his house, discovering a plane that was beyond hope.

"It was engulfed. By that time, there was nothing anybody could do, I assure you," Posey said. "The impact was so great," he said. "I knew nobody could be alive when the plane hit the ground."

He described the fuselage of the plane as compacted.

"There was no way there was anybody left," he said.

Posey said the plane apparently began to break apart before it crashed. A 4- or 5-foot piece of the tail section landed in a small pecan grove near the home of his father, D.E. Posey, about three-fourths of a mile from the crash site. A 20-foot section of the plane's left wing hit the ground about a quarter-mile from the pecan grove, closer to the crash site. Posey said there were no burn marks on either of those pieces or a half-dozen other pieces of the plane scattered in the area.

Posey's father, the first witness to arrive at the crash scene, told him that the fuselage exploded shortly after impact. It was dug into a muddy field about 60 yards off a dirt road.

Before local rescue workers arrived, no one made any effort to reach the plane, Posey said. "You couldn't walk out there it was so wet," he said.

He returned home to get his tractor which he used to ferry rescue workers to the site.

Peavy said that at 11:03 a.m. 911 emergency operators in Dooly County received a call from air traffic controllers at Robins Air Force Base, who said the plane had disappeared from the radar screen.

The wreckage was located about 3 miles east of Interstate 75 and 21/2 miles southeast of the town of Unadilla.

Peavy said that by the time he arrived at the crash site, about 15 minutes after the plane went down, most of the fire had been put out.

"The plane was all in one spot," Peavy said. "It was not scattered over the field." He said the plane did not appear to nosedive, but there also was no evidence that it slid to a stop. The deep mud may have prevented the plane from sliding. "It just stayed where it hit," he said.

Saturday's crash was the worst accident in military aviation nationally in nearly 19 years. Not since 1982, when an Air National Guard jet tanker crashed in Illinois, killing 27, 23 of them National Guard members, have so many died in a single aircraft accident.

- Staff writers William R. Levesque, Chris Tisch and Michael Sandler contributed to this report, which also includes information from Cox Newspapers, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.

C-23 Sherpa transport plane

Use: provides troop and equipment transport, airdrop and medical evacuation

Range: 770 miles, with 5,000-pound payload

Speed: 218 mph at 10,000 feet

Length: 58 feet

Width: 74 feet, 8 inches

Power: 2 Pratt-Whitney PT6A-45R turboprops

Crew: 2 pilots, 1 flight engineer

Passengers: 30-person capacity

Deployed: 1984

Manufacturer: Shorts Aviation, Belfast, Northern Ireland

- Source: Federation of American Scientists

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