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Body of California air tanker pilot is transferred in solemn ceremony

Air tanker pilot ceremony
Yosemite National Park rangers transfer the body of a pilot who was killed when his air tanker crashed fighting a wildfire a day earlier.
(Alfred Golub / Associated Press)

On a patch of dirt at the boundary of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, the body of the pilot who died when his air tanker crashed during the firefight the day before was transferred from the care of the park to his own agency.

Geoffrey Craig Hunt -- a private contractor for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection -- crashed just inside the park’s west entrance while fighting the Dog Rock fire.

In keeping with Cal Fire tradition, a sentry from the agency guarded the body overnight. In the pre-dawn hours, a Yosemite search and rescue team hiked the steep terrain to retrieve the body.

At the spot known locally as “park line,” the flag-draped gurney was carried from an ambulance to a waiting black SUV.

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An honor guard of Cal Fire officials and park rangers lined each side of Highway 140 as the rescue team members stayed inside their truck, heads down.

Behind the honor guards’ frozen, stricken faces, smoke from where the plane crashed still rose. Helicopters flew overhead, dropping retardant and water in the steepest part of Merced Canyon.

“Those guys up there had to keep taking care of business,” said Gary Wuchner, Yosemite’s fire spokesman. “But don’t think for a second that this moment isn’t on their minds.”

The crash happened during the initial attack on the fire. Three other firefighting aircraft were also in the air.

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The S-2T tankers, which can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant, are essentially old Navy aircraft that were retrofitted “from nose to tail,” including with turbine prop engines that were added in the 1990s, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

The planes are prized for their maneuverability in canyon areas and steep terrain. The cause of the crash remained under investigation, but witnesses described the plane crashing onto a granite ridge, sending debris cascading down near crews below.

After the crash, Cal Fire grounded its remaining 22 Grumman air tankers as officials assess their safety and their pilots’ comfort level in continuing to fly them. 

“It’s going to be the pilots’ choices whether they’re ready to fly again,” Berlant said.

But on Tuesday, in the hour before the fleet was grounded, the very pilots who witnessed the crash kept fighting the fire.

Tom Medema, a Yosemite spokesman, saw the plane go down from his post in El Portal. Then he watched the others keep flying, dropping retardant.

“It was incredible -- it’s incredible what they do, always,” he said as he straightened and took his place in line with the rest of the honor guard.

For California wildfire news, follow the reporter on Twitter: @DianaMarcum 

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