Tragedy has struck the Arizona Firefighting community once again. State officials have confirmed that a Fire Plane crashed 14 miles east of Wickieup, AZ carrying Air Tactical Group Supervisor and retired Fire Chief Jeff Piechura and Pilot Matthew Miller. According to The Bureau of Land Management Chief Piechura and Pilot Miller were performing aerial reconnaissance and command and control over the Cedar Basin Fire in support of the “Air Attack” mission. Both men were tragically killed in the crash.
Western Journal reports that Michele Machholz, 54, of Wikieup witnessed the fatal crash. Machholz was on the phone with her husband she told the Arizona Republic. She saw something in the sky and realized “it’s not a turkey vulture, it’s an airplane.”
“And it’s coming down at an angle that … you don’t traditionally see airplanes flying at this angle,” she said. “It was coming down at a steep angle.”
She said for a few seconds she was silent as she saw the plane “slam into the ground.”
“I’m screaming on the phone and ‘Oh my gosh. It just crashed. I can’t believe it,’” she said.
“I’m trying to tell my husband that this airplane just crashed and there was this big black plume of giant black smoke,” she said.
“The thing that gets to me the most is seeing somebody, knowing that they are going to probably die … and you can’t do one thing but watch it happen,” she said.
Machholz reportedly was told “by Bureau of Land Management personnel she had seen a wing fall off the plane.”
— AZ State Forestry (@azstateforestry) July 11, 2021
Arizona Fire Community Heartbroken.
According to a Press Release from the BLM Arizona State Office,
“The accident occurred at approximately noon on July 10 as part of initial attack efforts on the Cedar Basin Fire, located 14 miles east of Wikieup, in northwestern Arizona. Pilot Matthew Miller, 48, and Air Tactical Group Supervisor Jeff Piechura, 62, were on board a Beechcraft King Air C-90 aircraft, conducting visual reconnaissance and aviation command and control over the fire, when the accident occurred. Miller was a fire pilot with Falcon Executive Aviation, Inc, contracted by the U.S. Forest Service. Piechura was an employee with the Coronado National Forest. Their remains have been recovered from the accident site.”
Aviation-Safety.net confirmed the Beechcraft C90 King Air Registered N3688P of Falcon Executive Aviation out of Mesa, AZ was lost. They wrote,9
“The fire fighting aerial reconnaissance aircraft was destroyed after a reported structural failure and ground impact near Wikieup, Mohave County, Arizona while working the Cedar Basin Fire. The two occupants received fatal injuries.”
The report of a “structural failure and ground impact” supports the information provided to Michele Machholz by the unidentified Bureau of Land Management personnel that a wing had sheared away from the aircraft.
The crash site is currently being investigated by the NTSB, the FAA, and the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services. The plane went down one half-mile south of the fire line and is not threatened by the fire. The US Government’s incident reporting system InciWeb shows that the Cedar Basin Fire is 75% contained at 734 acres as of this report.
“Our hearts and most sincere condolences are with the families, friends, and colleagues of both individuals lost in this tragic accident,” said BLM Arizona State Director Raymond Suazo. “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.”