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– As a pilot with the Minnesota National Guard, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charlie Nord couldn’t believe he was lucky enough to fly helicopters.

“When you’re one of the dudes on the ground and you see the pilot, everyone looks up,” said Parker Carignan, Nord’s longtime friend. “Charlie was excited to be that person who everyone looked up to.”

Nord was piloting a UH-60 Black Hawk on a routine maintenance test flight Thursday afternoon when it crashed in trees lining the edge of a snowy Stearns County farm field. The 30-year-old pilot from northwestern Minnesota was killed along with two other soldiers on board.

They were identified in a tweet by the Minnesota National Guard on Saturday morning as Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr., 28, and Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg, 28. All three soldiers were assigned to Company C, 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion, based in St. Cloud.

They had returned in May from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East, where they conducted medical evacuations in support of Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve.

“They paid the ultimate price in their service,” Gov. Tim Walz, a 24-year member in the Army National Guard, said in a prepared statement. “Words will never ease the pain of this tragic loss, and the state of Minnesota is forever in the debt of these warriors."

Nord never talked about the dangers of flying, said Carig­nan, a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “He knew his skills would keep him up in the air.”

But Thursday, something went very wrong.

The Black Hawk disappeared about 2 p.m. after taking off from the St. Cloud aviation facility. According to emergency dispatch audio from Stearns County, the helicopter’s crew sent a mayday alert nine minutes after takeoff.

Local and state emergency workers swarmed the area in an intensive search before a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter with thermal imaging cameras spotted the wreckage about 16 miles southwest of St. Cloud.

Investigators Friday began the task of trying to determine the cause of the crash. Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Walz ordered flags to be flown at half-staff, memorials at the crash site grew and the friends and families of the soldiers who died struggled with the loss of their loved ones.

As word trickled out among Nord’s tight-knit group of friends and those at Perham High, the northwestern Minnesota school where Nord ran track and cross-country, the grim reality hit hard.

Carignan was a year behind Nord’s 2007 graduating class, but the two teens were tight.

“He had a really big impact on who I was at an age when you don’t realize how big people are in your life,” said Carignan. “He was a companion at a time when I needed a companion,” noting it was a time when Carignan’s father was deployed for more than three years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nord was the person people wanted to be around because he was joyful, lived in the moment and found humor in even the toughest situations, Carignan said.

“He wasn’t the type of person who stresses out about what was happening or what was to come,” he said. “It’s easy to be around people like Charlie.”

‘A rough day’

Carignan said Nord joined the National Guard and worked on a dairy farm before going to school to become an electrician. He worked hard and earned a chance to become a pilot, training for a couple of years at Fort Rucker in Alabama before returning to Minnesota, where he could be closer to relatives and raise a family.

He was married with a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, Carignan said. When he wasn’t flying for the National Guard, he was piloting a helicopter dusting Minnesota cropland.

“He couldn’t believe he was lucky enough to fly helicopters while other people went to work in cubicles,” Carignan said.

After a stint flying choppers in the Middle East, Nord was eager to return overseas. He took pride in doing his job, Carignan said.

“I think he was where he wanted to be,” Carignan said. “It’s why this is hard.”

Jeff Morris, a math teacher and cross-country and track coach at Perham High School, also struggled with the news of Nord’s death.

“It’s been a rough day,” he said.

Nord was a long-distance runner who helped build the cross-country team’s early success that eventually led to nine state titles.

“He was the first group of believers,” Morris said. “He was part of a team that was going to be more like family.”

While Nord was in Alabama, he called Morris “out of the blue” to let him know he was married, expecting his first child and moving home to Perham.

In July, Nord told Morris he was building a house three doors down from his former coach. Nord and his family had been in the new house for just a few months when his helicopter crashed, Morris said.

“He said to me, ‘I hope you stop by,’ ” Morris recalled. “Then life gets busy and you never stop by. …

“This is really hard for me. It’s really tough knowing they were right there. Suddenly you know how short life can be.”

Wondering what happened

While Nord’s family and friends grieved, residents near the crash site stopped Friday to plant an American flag in the soil.

“Kind of a sad, sad day,” said John Wicker, a farmer and member of the local township board. “And there’s nothing you can do. There is nothing anybody can do that would have changed the outcome.”

Wicker said he heard that the victims’ bodies were removed by Friday morning. He was hoping to quickly establish an honor guard before that happened, but instead, he and his son took the flag to the site and left it with a Stearns County sheriff’s deputy.

It’s not unusual to see Black Hawks flying low through the area, Wicker said. Local residents know there’s a maintenance facility nearby in St. Cloud, and the helicopter pilots sometimes fly low over the area and perform maneuvers.

“There’s more than one time I’ve thought, ‘Is that thing all right?’ ” Wicker said. “I’m sure they’re just testing them out, flying low or whatever …

“You just kind of wonder what happened,” he added. “Fifty feet to the south and they would have been in an empty field.”

Staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.