SYDNEY (Reuters) - The three U.S. firefighters killed when their C-130 Hercules tanker plane crashed while battling fierce bushfires in Australia were all former U.S. military members aged in their 40s with extensive flight experience.
Coulson Aviation, the private Canadian firm that employed the trio, named them on Friday as Captain Ian H. McBeth, 44, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42, and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr., 43.
“At Coulson Aviation, we have the incredible job of fighting fires around the world and we take pride in this responsibility,” the company said in a statement issued from its base in Portland, Oregon.
“Right now, our hearts are with the crew’s family and friends and our Coulson Family suffering in the loss of these three remarkable and well-respected crew members.”
Firefighters in Australia held a minute’s silence on Friday for the three U.S. colleagues, as investigators began scouring the accident site in remote bushland in Australia’s alpine region. The aircraft crashed while dumping retardant on a fire on Thursday.
McBeth, a father of three, had spent his entire career flying C-130s and was a qualified instructor and evaluator pilot, Coulson said.
“Ian was a highly qualified and respected C-130 pilot with many years fighting fire, both in the military and with Coulson Aviation,” it said, adding that McBeth was still a member of the Montana National Air Guard.
Hudson spent 20 years in the United States Marine Corp where he served in a number of positions, including as a C-130 pilot, before retiring as a Lt. Colonel.
DeMorgan, a father of two, served in the U.S. Air Force with 18 years as a flight engineer on the C-130. He had more than 4,000 hours as a flight engineer, with half of those in a combat environment.
Coulson said McBeth’s “love for his wife and children was evident for anyone who spent time around him”, while DeMorgan’s “passion was always flying and his children”.
Coulson, which is sending a team to Australia to assist authorities investigating the crash, thanked Australian fire services for their support.
“We honor the amazing crews who do incredible things in dangerous circumstances supported by world-class operations,” the company said. “We are incredibly moved by the outpouring and support from those in Australia and around the world.”
Coulson had grounded its other large air tankers as a precaution immediately after the crash on Thursday but said they would be returning to work “in the very near future”.
The plane crash on Thursday took the death toll for Australia’s devastating bushfire season to 32, including eight firefighters.
Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Michael Perry