A Tulare County sheriff's deputy and a pilot who worked for the Sheriff's Department were killed Wednesday when their plane crashed into a mountain in the San Joaquin Valley, authorities said.
The single-engine plane, which the Sheriff's Department purchased in 2011, crashed about 4:15 p.m. about 10 miles east of Porterville, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said.
The plane ignited after it crashed, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky.
The pilot, James Chavez, 45, and Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, were the only two on the plane. Boudreaux said he met with family members before he released the men's names to the public.
"We ask that the community say prayers for the officers and their families, as this is a very difficult time for us," Boudreaux said.
It's unclear what caused the crash of the CTLS aircraft. The Sheriff's Department had clocked about 3,000 hours of flight time in the two-person plane.
"It happened so quickly, there was no distress call or mayday," Boudreaux said.
Chavez, a resident of Hanford, was a veteran pilot and had significant aviation experience from his service in the California Army Reserve National Guard. He had been hired by the department in 2014 after more than a year of volunteering as a pilot.
"He was just a fantastic pilot," Boudreaux said.
Ballantyne had begun working in the department's aviation unit about 18 months ago as an observer onboard the aircraft, the sheriff said.
Before the crash, both men had flown out to assist deputies on the ground who were tracking down a person wanted for brandishing a firearm, Boudreaux said. That suspect was arrested, and the plane was about to leave the area near Springville.
Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, will investigate the crash.
State Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims were among the politicians and law enforcement leaders who expressed condolences to Boudreaux and his department, the sheriff said.
Boudreaux, who oversees about 600 sworn deputies and about 250 support staff, called his agency a tight-knit group.
"Our department is strong and we will come through this," he said.