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Pilot killed in air tanker crash in Yosemite was 13-year veteran

Pilot killed in air tanker crash in Yosemite was 13-year veteran
Smoke rises from the site where an air tanker crashed while fighting a wildfire near Yosemite National Park on Tuesday, killing the pilot. (Donald Talend / Associated Press)

The air tanker pilot who died in a crash at Yosemite National Park on Tuesday had a 13-year record of fighting wildfires from the air in California, officials said.

The pilot -- identified Wednesday as 62-year-old San Jose resident Geoffrey Craig Hunt -- was a private contractor with DynCorp International, which operates the fleet of Grumman S-2T fixed-wing tankers on behalf of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The aircraft carries about 1,200 gallons of fire retardant.

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Hunt crashed Tuesday afternoon while fighting the Dog Rock fire, which by Wednesday morning had grown to 210 acres and was zero percent contained, officials said.

His was one of four aircraft that state and federal firefighters were using to battle the fire.

Because of the fire's location on the outskirts of Yosemite at the edge of Highway 140 in El Portal, the crash was witnessed by citizens and firefighters alike.

Steve Speltz, a clerk at El Portal Market, was arranging vegetables Tuesday when children ran in crying.

"They were 4, 5, 6 -- they watched the plane crash," he said.

Tom Medema, a park spokesman, said he also saw the plane go down.

"I was standing right here," he said Wednesday outside the market. "We were watching the air show."

The plane crashed and burst into flames, covering a steep granite ridge in fire and wreckage.

"There was no denying what [the children] had witnessed. The parents were talking about heroes. How these guys all over the world risk their lives," Medema said.

The last time a Cal Fire air tanker crashed was in 2006, department officials said. The agency acquired 26 of the air tankers from the Defense Department in 1996. The oldest is now 60 years old.

In a statement Wednesday, DynCorp said it "extends its deepest sympathies to the pilot’s family and loved ones in this difficult time."

The planes were originally owned by the U.S. Navy and used in antisubmarine warfare.

Cal Fire has grounded its remaining 22 Grumman air tankers as officials assess their safety and the comfort level of their pilots in flying them. Crews are using other types of Cal Fire and federal aircraft in lieu of the tankers, officials said.

For California wildfire news, follow the reporters on Twitter: @DianaMarcum and @JosephSerna

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