A C-130 firefighting aircraft on its way to a blaze in Kern County exploded in midair Saturday, killing the three people on board and sending a huge fireball vaulting into the sky after the plane crashed in rugged canyon country in the Antelope Valley, authorities said.
The aircraft, which was carrying fire retardant, broke into pieces and sparked two small brush fires on the side of Pallet Mountain, about 25 miles south of Palmdale in Angeles National Forest.
The fires blackened about five acres and were contained by U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County Fire Department crews by late Saturday, fire officials said.
A Forest Service spokesman said rescuers will retrieve the bodies today. Spokesman Terry Ellis said the three were employees of the Hemet Valley Flying Service, which owned the plane and contracted it out to the Forest Service to help combat fires.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators will hike to the crash site today to try to determine the cause of the crash, officials said.
"You've got to be a mountain climber to get up there," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Antonio Madrid, who was at the scene.
Initially, authorities believed two planes had collided in midair because of the explosion and brush fires. But, Madrid said, the plane "apparently caught on fire before it crashed. . . . We now believe the plane was cut in half."
A spokesman for Edwards Air Force Base said that its control tower was tracking the plane and that it disappeared from the radar screen about 1:30 p.m.
The plane, a privately owned C-130 Hercules, was being leased by the Forest Service to help fight fires throughout the country, said Roger Richcreek, a Forest Service spokesman.
Witnesses said the plane lost altitude and exploded before it slammed into the mountainside near Devil's Punch Bowl, a Los Angeles County park known for its unusual rock formations.
"We were driving up when we noticed this large plane that seemed to be flying too low," said Sheri Multer of Fontana, who was in the area with her daughter and nephew. "It just exploded into a ball of flames. One of the wings shot off and the body of the plane kept flying off. . . . I feel sorry for whoever was in the plane."
Harold Hogan, 68, who was part of a foursome golfing at Crystalaire Country Club in nearby Llano, said the plane was on fire and tumbling through the air.
"It had flames shooting out of it, and making a sputtering sound," he said. "I knew it was going down. . . . Then I saw and heard a huge explosion. It was a huge ball of flame and smoke that probably went 500 feet into the air."
Several seconds after the first explosion, Hogan said, he saw the aircraft slam into the mountainside and heard another crashing sound.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life," he said. "It was louder than a sonic boom. It was awesome."
David Sandoval of Carson City, Nev., said he was on his way with a friend to Devil's Punch Bowl when the friend pointed out the plane before it crashed.
"I didn't see any parachutes," Sandoval said. "Whoever was in that plane went down with it. It happened so fast I don't think even the pilot knew what was happening."
Most of the 30 planes leased by the Forest Service are C-130 cargo planes converted to carry fire-retardant chemicals, officials said. The planes carry a maximum of three passengers, including the pilot.
The air tankers are very effective at fighting fires because they can fly at fairly slow speeds, are highly maneuverable and are able to drop fire retardant with great accuracy, Richcreek said.
During fire season, the planes roam the country, going from one blaze to another.
The C-130 that went down Saturday was en route to a brush fire in central Kern County believed to have been started by lightning. The Northrop fire, which burned 75 acres, was contained Saturday afternoon, fire officials said.
Lightning has ignited dozens of such fires on the desert side of Angeles National Forest over the last three days.
Although the tanker planes handle air traffic control themselves, they usually check in with local Forest Service crews when they arrive at a fire, authorities said.
Richcreek said he did not know if the plane that went down attempted to communicate with Angeles National Forest rangers because of the heavy radio traffic generated because of the brush fires.
Times staff writer Jill Bettner contributed to this story.