TULARE COUNTY (KFSN) --The bodies of Deputy Scott Ballantyne and pilot James Chavez were removed from the crash scene in a late night procession, led by law enforcement agencies, to the Tulare County Coroner's Office.
The Tulare County Sheriff's Office says the plane was on a call in the area, assisting with the arrest of a man who was brandishing a handgun. The man was arrested and the plane was leaving the call when it crashed into the side of a mountain ridge.
Both victims who died were veterans in their field. Deputy Scott Ballantyne and pilot James Chavez were both highly respected employees who flew on the plane known as Sheriff One quite often. Deputy Ballantyne has been with the department more than two decades.
Sheriff's pilot James Chavez was only with the department for about a year. He also served as a Black Hawk pilot for the California Army Reserve National Guard and assisted on search and rescue missions for the county.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux says the families of both of the men are devastated. "Our hearts go out the families -- as they are the family of the sheriff's office and we consider them close friends. We ask that the community say prayers for the officers and their families as this is a very, very difficult time for us."
It's still too early to tell what caused the plane to go down. The aircraft had been with the department since 2011 and was used five to six days a week. Officials say they gave no distress signal or mayday call before plunging into the hillside.
One woman in the community of Springville says she saw the impact of the crash. "Kinda like went outside and I seen (sic) this plane come up over the top of the mountain and there was another one going in the other direction and then the plane comes down and hits and all you see is smoke and a bunch of fire," said Nita Buck, Springville.
ABC30 insider John Kuivenhoven took a picture of the crash. He was driving the back roads in the area when he saw smoke. So he parked his car and then saw something fully engulfed in flames. "They said it was a plane so I thought maybe there's a little bit of fuselage left, cause it was really black and charred. And you couldn't really see anything else-- if there was a plane it was pretty much disintegrated," said Kuivenhoven.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials have left the crash scene after spending most of Thursday investigating. The sheriff's office is back in control of the site and they said the plane debris will be removed Friday morning.
The NTSB has not made any comment about the crash, however, sheriff's officials said this is the beginning of their investigation and it could take a long time before they come to a conclusion.
The sheriff said the plane was a two seater plane that was selected for its reliability and safety and had 3,000 hours of flight time on it with no prior problems.