Wreckage from the C-130 Hercules was scattered for more than a kilometre over charred bushland, where an out-of-control fire had swept through minutes before Thursday’s crash which claimed the lives of three American airmen.
Captain Ian McBeth, 44, first officer Paul Hudson, 42, and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan jnr, 43, were killed in the crash at Peak View near Cooma shortly after 1pm as out-of-control bushfires raged across southern NSW.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Friday said the three men would be honoured at a state memorial service in February, along with the three Australian firefighters who have also died this fire season.
The highly experienced airmen’s families are expected to arrive in Sydney in the next few days. Executives from Canadian company Coulson Aviation, which operated the Hercules, will meet Australian investigators on Saturday.
Air Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Greg Hood said investigators would be “most interested” in recovering the plane’s cockpit voice recorder to learn “what exchanges may have been in the cockpit during the final moments”.
“It’s a particularly complicated site at the moment – it’s an active bushfire area,” he said.
Mr Hood said the firefighters died in “the selfless pursuit of the prevention of loss of life and property”.
Several witnesses to the crash will also be crucial to helping determine the sequence of events during the afternoon, when dry, hot northwesterly winds were gusting up to 70 kilometres an hour over the Snowy Monaro.
Flight tracking shows the C-130 was travelling east and then veered north-west, dropping altitude and speed, hooking south in a tight arc before contact with the aircraft was lost near Peak View. Initial accounts of the crash said the plane turned into a “ball of flames” on impact.
NSW Police Superintendent Paul Condon said debris from the plane was strewn across more than a kilometre and there was “not much intact at all”.
“It’s obvious that the plane has impacted heavily. The crash site covers a good kilometre just in length,” he said.
The C-130 Hercules is renowned for its versatility and toughness, according to senior firefighters, who praised the ex-US military pilots as “just incredible” and described the “risky” conditions they flew through as hellish.
“It’s the most hostile flying conditions you could think of outside war,” one said.
Captain McBeth’s sister-in-law described the 44-year-old father of three as a wonderful father and “amazing husband”.
Former Coulson C-130 crew member Bob Maddern said the company’s pilot’s were total professionals, who “trained for the untrainable”.
“The crew I flew with were US military and never once give me cause for concern as to their capabilities,” he said.
“While we had a lot of humour in our conversations into and out of the drop areas, once there, they were absolutely totally professional in every way.”
Former US Navy Top Gun pilot Kevin Sullivan said the C-130 Hercules were ‘‘rock solid’’ airplanes used throughout the world, but water bombing bushfires at low altitude was “inherently risky” and required specialised experience.
“Many of these pilots have extensive military experience in the C130. It is low altitude flying and it’s extremely challenging,’’ he said.
‘‘You have enormous temperature changes, up drafts, pyroclastic lightning, bad visibility caused by the fires, and they are flying in areas of high terrain.’’
Mr Sullivan, a former Qantas captain who saved an A330 passenger jet from disaster in 2008, said it would take ‘‘enormous discipline’’ to fly in such a high-stress environment.
‘‘These pilots came a long way to help save lives and property here. It takes a lot of discipline to fly the aircraft, identify the drop zone and avoid the terrain,’’ he said.
Accident forensics and investigation expert Geoff Dell said investigators would be considering all possibilities ranging from bird strike to pre-existing aircraft damage to try to determine the cause of the Hercules crash.
“At this stage, you can’t discount anything – you have to have an open mind. They will be looking in the wreckage for any pre-existing damage … [and] will be looking if anything fell off,” said Dr Dell, an associate professor at Central Queensland University and a former Qantas safety manager.
Dr Dell said investigators would be combing the aircraft’s maintenance log, the pilots’ medical and flying history, operating procedures and any high G-force occurrences.
“If you have a situation where the air frame gets loaded to near or maximum G-force [gravitational] limit, it needs to be inspected for damage,” he said. “But that becomes problematic because it is difficult [to detect] unless it creates a crack.”
A ‘‘bird dog’’ pilot, who has been flying missions for the Rural Fire Service this bushfire season, said Coulson Aviation was highly regarded and the Hercules well suited for water bombing.
‘‘But when you constantly immerse yourself in a risky part of aviation, particularly at low level, eventually you get an unlucky roll of the dice,’’ said the pilot, who declined to be identified. ‘‘It is dynamic and a very high stress environment.’’
The RFS was using more than 70 aircraft across NSW on Thursday to fight dozens of out of control fires, six of which reached emergency level during the day.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Matt O’Sullivan is City Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Eilidh Mellis is an intern journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.