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DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DEL. — Four times, the Air Force carry team entered the belly of the C-17. Four times, they exited with flag-covered transfer cases.
On April 27, four airmen who hailed from one end of the U.S. to the other — Virginia, Kentucky, California and Hawaii — died when their MC-12 crashed near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
Capt. Brandon L. Cyr, 28, of Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; Capt. Reid K. Nishizuka, 30, of Beale Air Force Base, Calif.; Staff Sgt. Daniel N. Fannin, 30, of Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.; and Staff Sgt. Richard A. Dickson, 24, also assigned to Beale, returned home April 30 in a somber ceremony on the tarmac here.
Their families, along with more than two dozen pilots, sailors and the Air Force’s top leaders, watched the dignified transfer of remains on a brisk, overcast afternoon. The airmen and sailors stood at attention, raising their hands in salute — once, twice, three times, four times. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody stood among them, paying their respects.
Not since last July has a plane crash claimed the lives of four airmen, when a C-130 fighting a wildfire in South Dakota went down, killing four Air National Guardsmen.
The cause of the April 27 crash remains under investigation. The Defense Department said the initial report indicated no enemy activity in the area at the time. The MC-12 is a twin-engine turboprop aircraft that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
'He was my hero'
Cyr, a KC-135 instructor pilot with the 906th Air Refueling Squadron, had deployed four times since arriving at Scott in 2009. This was his third Afghanistan deployment.
“Brandon volunteered for this assignment, and it was this mission more than any other he wanted the most,” 126th Air Refueling Wing commander Col. Peter Nezamis said in a statement. Cyr had previously served as Nezamis’ executive officer.
Cyr, from Woodbridge, Va., was the co-pilot of the MC-12. He’d been in Afghanistan for three months at the time of the crash.
Micah Ward met Cyr when her family moved to Scott the same year he arrived there. Her mom played volleyball with the young officer. Her dad, a boom operator in the Air Force, worked with Cyr.
“Brandon got adopted in like another brother or a random cousin,” recalled Ward, 22. “There is not one word to describe him. There are a billion words you can use to describe him.”
Ward remembered most his good-natured teasing and penchant for baking cookies.
“He was a great cook and loved making food, but he was the pickiest eater ever. He hated onions and tomatoes, which was a running joke,” she said.
Not long ago, the Wards and Cyrs took a trip to the St. Louis City Museum, about a half-hour drive from Scott.
“It’s basically a huge playground for adults,” Ward said. “My sister got a picture of him going down a slide and he has a huge smile on his face — he looks like a little kid.”
For all his playfulness, Cyr was a dedicated airman. He received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and was commissioned in 2006 after completing the ROTC program at the University of California, Berkeley, according to the Air Force. He entered pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in 2008. Since then, Cyr logged more than 1,700 flight hours, more than half in combat. He’d received five Air Medals and an Achievement Medal.
Ward, who is in college in New Mexico, said she wanted to be a pilot like Brandon.
“He was my hero,” she said. “It still doesn’t seem like [his death] is a possibility. It doesn’t make sense that I’m going to go home in two weeks after school gets out and Brandon is not going to be there.
“I have to stay positive. He’d want us all to be happy,” she continued. “He loved being a pilot. He died doing what he loved.”
Older of two captains
Nishizuka, assigned to the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale, was the pilot of the MC-12. The Kailua, Hawaii, native planned to make the Air Force a career, his father Ricky Nishizuka told the Hononlulu TV station KHNL/KGMB.
“I was proud of him serving his country, but I was also proud of him enjoying what he was doing,” Ricky Nishizuka said.
Nishizuka had two younger brothers. One of them, Chad, is also a captain in the Air Force and has deployed to Afghanistan twice.
“It’s honestly one of those things you think will never happen to me and you go out there and just do your job with no fear,” Chad Nishizuka told the station. “That’s why it’s so surprising to me that it did happen. You don’t expect it.”
Tech. Sgt. Mike Porter provided communications-related support for Nishizuka and his crew in Iraq while they was assigned to the 55th Electronic Combat Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
“He was known for always smiling, being quick-witted, and I regarded him as a nice guy and a great officer,” Porter said in an email. “The missions he flew over Iraq were absolutely vital to ground operations. ... It was a pleasure to serve with him.”
Motivators and mentors
Dickson and Fannin were sensor operators aboard the MC-12.
Dickson, from Rancho Cordova, Calif., was assigned to the 306th Intelligence Squadron at Beale. Fannin, from Morehead, Ky., was assigned to the 552nd Operations Support Squadron at Tinker.
Dickson was an “exceptionally qualified” airman who flew more than 100 combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded six Air Medals, said Col. Phil Stewart, his wing commander.
Dickson’s position as tactical systems operator is one of the most difficult jobs and he was one the best at his job, said Stewart, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale.
“In other words, if I had a very difficult mission to fly, I would know who to call,” Stewart said. “He was motivated; he was smart; he was good at his job; he was a caring, giving individual; he was liked by his peers, respected across the board — the kind of guy you want to go to combat with.”
Fannin, a 12-year Air Force veteran who celebrated his 30th birthday weeks before the crash, “loved his family, his dog, and to fish and camp,” his family said in a statement published in a local newspaper.
“Daniel died honorably serving his country so that we may continue to enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. He died just as he lived — serving God and others. We are blessed to have known and loved Daniel.”
One former airman remembers Fannin as a mentor who helped him succeed in the Air Force and then later in life.
“When I was 19, I guess I wasn’t the most professional airman — he put me in line,” said the airman, who asked not to be identified.
At the time, Fannin was his bombing instructor at Tinker. Fannin sat the former airman down and told him it was time to take his job more seriously. He listened.
“He wasn’t berating me,” the former airman said. “It wasn’t like [a military training instructor] or an instructor type of hand-in-the-face yelling; it was a very person-to-person, ‘Hey, this is what you should be doing; this is what you were doing; see why what you were doing was wrong; this is how you should change it and how it should be from here on out.’ ”
The former airman went on to serve with Fannin’s squadron and they kept in touch when he left the service. He’s now a senior at a North Carolina university where he has made the dean’s list each semester.
“I think that him mentoring me is a lot of the reason why I’m doing very well right now,” he said. ■
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