Marines from Illinois killed in Calif. air crash

September 20, 2011 (CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.)

The word is just getting around two downstate communities that they have each suffered military and personal losses. Capt. Jeffrey Bland and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann were piloting a Cobra attack helicopter during training over a remote area of Southern California Monday. Heitmann was from Mendota, west of Chicago, and Bland was from Champaign. Both had long, distinguished service records.

All training flights at Camp Pendelton are cancelled until authorities can determine what caused this AH-1W, known as the Super Cobra, to crash and burn.

The incident sparked a brush fire that spread to 120 acres before it was put out.

The pilots were both from Squadron 303 of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing. Captain Bland joined the Marines in 1997; he had served in Korea and Iraq and was the recipient of numerous service medals.

Heitmann was commissioned in 2008 and had several commendations in a short time.

At St. Bedes High School in LaSalle County, where Heitmann was a student athlete, former teachers and coaches remember him as a great team player.

"Tom was a senior on our most successful football team in history," said coach Tom McGunnigal. "Just a well rounded kid who was not only involved in football and track, but was acting in our musical on the stage, had a great voice. Always carried himself with a lot of pride and confidence."

"Flying was one of his dreams, he always wanted to be a pilot, it's something he talked about. In fact, the last time I saw him when he was in town, home on leave, he said it was a dream come true," said coach Richard Cummings.

"I remember seeing Tom a few years ago come back at homecoming and was just so proud to be serving his country and being a pilot," said McGunnigal. "I know that was something he always wanted to do."

"People still remembered what he did running track and playing football and looked up to him in what he was doing now," said Cummings.

"We have a football game this Friday night, and we're definitely going to have a moment of silence to remember Tom," McGunnigal said.

Captain Bland was 37 years old and married. He and his wife heather had a baby girl seven months ago. Bland's parents still live in Galesburg in western Illinois.

There is no word yet from military investigators as to what caused the helicopter to go down.

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