WASHINGTON — A Florida National Guard transport flying members of a Virginia unit back home crashed in a muddy field in south-central Georgia on Saturday morning, killing all 21 aboard, local and military authorities said.
"The plane is in one spot. It is destroyed. The passengers were probably dead on impact," said Dooly County Sheriff Van Peavy, whose officers were the first to arrive on the scene, near Unadilla, Ga.
Tim Kurtz, spokesman at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, said the plane was a C-23 "Sherpa" transport belonging to the 171st Aviation Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard, which is based in Lakeland.
Military officials said the plane was carrying a crew of three from the Florida guard and 18 members of the Virginia Air National Guard's 203rd Red Horse Flight, a civil engineering unit based in Sandston. The Virginia unit was returning from a deployment in Florida.
"Everybody in the National Guard will feel this," said Maj. Gen. Ronald O. Harrison, adjutant general of the Florida guard. "It is a tragedy of major proportions. However, our job is to accomplish our mission . . . even though tragedies like this happen."
Harrison said the plane, a military version of a twin-engine commuter turboprop, had departed from Hurlburt Field in Florida for Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia. Hurlburt is home to the Air Force commandos but is also headquarters for a heavy engineering squadron that has frequently deployed overseas to such critical areas as the Balkans and the Persian Gulf.
Harrison said the plane was on a routine mission. He said it was one of two C-23s that the Florida guard owns, and he knew of no problems with the plane, which can carry up to 30 troops.
Peavy said a light rain was falling in the area under low clouds at the time of the accident, about 10 a.m. He said witnesses saw the plane flying lower and lower, until it crashed. It went down in a 5-acre field, about 100 yards from a stand of trees, Peavy said. The area is about 45 miles south of Macon.
"It could have been that he [the pilot] was trying to get it down," said Peavy. "The field was very wet--probably a foot to a foot-and-a-half of mud. When the plane touched down, it didn't look like it skidded."
Peavy said it looked as if "the plane maybe hit on its nose and then flopped back down."
He said there was a light explosion after the crash, followed by a strong fire. One of his deputies tried to approach the burning plane but backed off after hearing some popping sounds. The fire burned itself out in less than 15 minutes.
The Air Force said a board of officers will investigate the crash.
Associated Press contributed to this story.