DENVER (AP) — Growing up in a small rural community on Colorado’s plains, Ian McBeth went to work as a ranch hand in neighboring Nebraska at 14 and was a standout athlete in football, wrestling and track. Initially stymied in his dream of becoming a pilot because of his vision, McBeth, one of three Americans killed fighting wildfires in Australia on Thursday, first served as a jack of all trades building landing strips for C-130 Hercules planes and later as a navigator, including in Iraq.

Ian McBeth

Ian McBeth (credit: Coulson Aviation USA inc.)

At 28, a year before he would lose eligibility to become a pilot, he applied again and was accepted.

“He was determined, tenacious and tough. Probably the most all-around capable and competent person I ever knew,” Bill McBeth of Wray, Colorado said of his son, a husband and father of three who lived in Great Falls, Montana.

McBeth was killed Thursday along with First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona, and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr., 43, of Navarre, Florida, when their C-130 Hercules tanker crashed while fighting wildfires in Australia, their employer, Canada-based Coulson Aviation, said in a statement.

All three men had strong military backgrounds. McBeth served in the Wyoming Air National Guard while a student at the University of Wyoming and later joined the Air National Guard in Montana, where flags were ordered lowered in his honor on Saturday.

COOMA, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 23: Smoke is seen from the Good Good fire on January 23, 2020 in Cooma, Australia. on January 23, 2020 in Cooma, Australia. Three American firefighters have have died after their C-130 water tanker plane crashed while battling a bushfire near Cooma in southern NSW this afternoon. The repurposed C-130 Hercules, built in America by Lockheed Martin, took off from Richmond RAAF base at 1pm, and disappeared from the flight radar just after 2pm. Coulson Aviation, the Canadian operator of the C-130 aircraft, has now grounded their fleet as a mark of respect for the victims and to re-assess safety conditions. Hot and windy conditions have seen a number of fires flare up across southern NSW this afternoon, with firefighters battling numerous blazes in temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius in some parts. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Hudson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 and spent the following 20 years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, including as a C-130 pilot, Coulson Aviation said. Hudson, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, earned master’s degrees in business administration and information technology management from the Naval Postgraduate School. He is survived by his wife, Noreen.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey noted Hudson’s lengthy military service in ordering the lowering of flags on all public buildings in his honor on Friday. “Then, when duty called again, First Officer Hudson didn’t hesitate, putting his life on the line to help others battling wildfires in Australia,” Ducey said.

DeMorgan served in the U.S. Air Force for 24 years and had over 4,000 hours experience as a flight engineer, with nearly half of those earned in combat situations. He is survived by this two children, Lucas and Logan; his parents, Rick Sr. and Linda; and a sister, Virginia DeMorgan.

Virginia DeMorgan said her brother’s passions were his children and flying. “He loved flying from the time he was a kid,” she said.

Residents commute on a road through thick smoke from bushfires in Bemboka, in Australia’s New South Wales state on January 5, 2020. – Australians on January 5 counted the cost from a day of catastrophic bushfires that caused “extensive damage” across swathes of the country and took the death toll from the long-running crisis to 24. (Photo by SAEED KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

McBeth hoped all three of his children, Abigail, 17, Calvin, 13 and Ella, 11, would learn how to fly, Bill McBeth said. Abigail is working on getting her pilot’s license and sometimes flew with her father, he said.

“His kids loved him dearly,” Bill McBeth said.

The plane the three men were in had just dropped liquid to suppress the flames when it crashed, investigators said Friday.

The deaths came during an unprecedented wildfire season that has left a large swath of destruction in Australia’s southeast. More than 30 people have died, including three Australian volunteer firefighters.

Investigators went to where the C-130 Hercules tanker crashed in the Snowy Monaro region of the state of New South Wales, and a team was working to recover the Americans’ bodies, Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Greg Hood told reporters.

He said it would be difficult to secure evidence and the remains because the wildfire is still burning and the team faces potential hazards such as aviation fuel.

Upward of 500 aircraft from several countries are fighting Australia’s wildfires, Hood said.

“So, if there are lessons to be learned from this particular accident, it’s really important that not only Australia learns these, but the world learns them,” he said.

The three U.S. deaths brings the toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September. The fires also have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and burned more than 104,000 square kilometers (40,000 square miles), an area bigger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending an investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 15,000 liters (4,000 gallons) of fire retardant in a single pass.

By COLLEEN SLEVIN

Associated Press writer Terry Tang in Phoenix and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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