Investigators: Ariz. firefighters' plane lost wing before fatal crash

Two firefighters performing aerial surveillance over the Cedar Basin Fire died after their plane crashed earlier this month

By Helena Wegner
The Charlotte Observer

WIKIEUP, Ariz. — Two firefighters were observing a northwestern Arizona fire when their plane made a “steep dive” toward the ground, falling hundreds of feet, according to federal authorities.

The aircraft was engulfed in flames after hitting the side of a “ridgeline in mountainous desert terrain” on July 10.

But the wing was found nearly one mile from the wreckage with no signs of fire damage, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released Tuesday.

A witness told The Arizona Republic the plane crashed within a matter of seconds and resulted in a “big black plume of giant black smoke.”

Michele Machholz said she drove with her husband an hour later to the scene where the Bureau of Land Management told them the wing fell off the plane before tumbling to the ground, The Republic reported.

BLM officials later said they couldn’t confirm that information, the news outlet said.

Both crew members died. Pilot Matthew Miller, 48, worked for Falcon Executive Aviation, a company contracted by the U.S. Forest Service. Jeff Piechura, 62, worked for the Coronado National Forest and was a retired fire chief for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, according to U.S. Forest Service.

When the accident occurred, the firefighters had been doing aerial reconnaissance over the lightning-caused Cedar Basin Fire 14 miles east of Wikieup, Arizona, according to a news release from the Bureau of Land Management on July 11.

Final radar data showed the turbo prop airplane descending from 2,300 feet, National Transportation Safety Board officials said.

Burned debris from the crash scattered over “several” acres, and the wing was found 0.79 miles from the ruins. A distress call from the crew was not heard over the radio, federal officials said.

“Our hearts and most sincere condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of both individuals lost in this tragic accident,” BLM Arizona State Director Raymond Suazo said in a news release. “This reminds us of the inherent risks involved in wildland firefighting and the gratitude we owe to the courageous and committed men and women who serve willingly to protect lives, communities and natural resources.”


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