Wisconsin: fire spotter plane crashes, killing pilot

The Associated Press and the FAA are reporting that an airplane observing a wildland fire crashed Wednesday at about 2:28 p.m. near Cary, Wisconsin, killing the pilot, the only person on board. Firefighters were working a fire on the ground as the plane observed from the air. The crash occurred in a field near the fire.

The plane, a twin-engine Cessna 337 Skymaster was owned by the state and leased to the Department of Natural Resources.   The name of the pilot has not been released.

WSAW-TV in Wausau reported on its Web site that a witness at the scene, Richard Luther, said he was in his car near the wildfires when he saw the plane circling. Luther said it made three circles and on the fourth circle it became low and dove into the ground.  Mr. Luther was about 300-400 feet from the scene when the plane crashed.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 7:20 p.m. April 8, 2009

The pilot has been identified as Heath Van Handel, 36, a DNR employee since 2006.  Before that he was a commercial pilot and flight instructor at Kansas State University.