Air Transport Safety Bureau investigators began their meticulous analysis of the large crash site at first light on Saturday morning. They found the plane’s cockpit voice recorder near the tail, ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood said.
“Without knowing what exactly happened, we don’t know how useful that piece of equipment is, but we remain hopeful that it will assist us in the investigation,” he told reporters near the scene on Saturday afternoon.
The voice recorder has been taken to the ATSB’s facilities in Canberra, where its data will be analysed.
Air crash investigators believe the plane had delivered its load of fire retardant to an out-of-control bushfire nearby in the moments before the crash.
Mr Hood has described the site as “particularly complicated”. He added that the men had died in the “selfless pursuit of the prevention of loss of life and property”.
Emergency services were seen combing through the blackened crash site, where a bushfire had swept through in the moments before the crash.
Executives of Coulson Aviation, the company that owned the C-130, which was on loan to Australia for the bushfire season, landed in Sydney on Saturday morning, and were expected to meet local authorities.
Mr Hood said the ATSB would undertake 3D mapping of the crash site on Sunday and also planned to take eyewitness accounts from several firefighters who saw the crash.
As authorities work to piece together how the deadly incident unfolded, the professionalism and bravery of the airmen was lauded across Australia and the US.
Former C-130 crew member Bob Maddern, said Coulson Aviation pilots were “by far the most professional and safest to fly with”.
The flight engineer said the crews he flew with were “trained for the untrainable”.
“The crew I flew with were US military and never once gave 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.”
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described the deadly crash as “a body blow” to the firefighting fraternity.
The investigation into the tragic crash comes as the latest victim of Australia’s bushfire crisis was identified as 59-year-old Michael Clarke.
Mr Clarke’s body was found in his burnt-out home near Bodalla on Friday, after fire swept through the South Coast region on Thursday, less than 60 kilometres from the C-130 crash.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.