CLINTON (WATE/AP) - An Air National Guard pilot from Clinton was killed in the weekend crash of a tanker helping fight a wildfire in South Dakota.
The family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, 42, identified him as a victim on Monday. They live in Mooresville, N.C.
The C-130 Hercules from the North Carolina 15th Air Wing based in Charlotte, was carrying a crew of six when it crashed Sunday evening. It was helping battle the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, in southwest South Dakota.
His family said Mikeal died doing what he loved.
"When you know your brother loves it and wants to do this and feels very passionate about serving his country, then there's a peace to it," said Tina Adkins, Mikeal's sister who lives in West Knoxville.
They spoke with Mikeal Saturday before he was deployed to Colorado and then South Dakota.
"When they got the call, they were ready and excited. This is what he does. This is what he loves to do," Adkins said.
Before he left, Mikeal knew his crew would be fighting the fire in difficult conditions.
"He knew he was going into dangerous terrain and he knew they had to be extremely careful on this mission," Adkins said. She added that her brother and his unit just underwent training this spring.
Lt. Col. Mikeal entered the Air Force after college as a commissioned officer in 1991. He has served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His sisters said he always lived life to the fullest.
"He was very passionate about his work and his family, and you saw that in everything he did," Adkins said.
Lt. Col. Mikeal and his wife, Marlo, were preparing to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary next week. They have two children, a 12-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter.
"He was loved by everyone. He was one of those guys. Everyone loved him," said his youngest sister, Angela Yonce.
Lt. Col. Mikeal graduated from Clinton High School in 1987. He lived in Charlotte and went to UNC Charlotte.
His sisters say it's surreal that this happened so close to the Fourth of July. Their brother is being hailed as a hero, doing what he loved up until his very last breath.
"Every pilot knows that there's fear that this could happen, but he loved it," said Yonce. "President Obama called him a hero, and we've known that since we were little."
According to military officials, three other crew members aboard the tanker plane died as well, Maj. Joseph McCormick, Maj. Ryan David, and Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon. They all were from North Carolina. Two other crew members were injured.
The crash prompted the military to temporarily ground the seven remaining Air Force tankers used in firefighting, but Tuesday those tankers resumed battling the fires.
Sunday's night crash is still under investigation.