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Grandfather: N.C. pilot killed in Afghanistan was 'called to fly'

Capt. Mark McDowell was born to fly. His grandfather said he talked about it all the time, up until the day he died.

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SANFORD, N.C. — Capt. Mark McDowell was born to fly. His grandfather said he talked about it all the time, up until the day he died.

McDowell, 26, was one of two airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base who died Friday in a military jet crash in Afghanistan. Capt. Thomas Gramith, 27, from Minnesota, was the other.

The two airmen died when their jet went down while helping out ground troops. Military investigators say the F-15E Strike Eagle was not hit by enemy fire when it crashed in Kabul. They are still investigating what happened.

Rev. Gilbert McDowell said his grandson was just promoted to captain a few weeks ago and was scheduled to come home in six weeks.

“(Flying) was his life,” Gilbert McDowell said. “He died doing what he wanted to do. He wanted to fly. He was called to fly. I’m a firm believer God called me to the ministry. God called him to be a pilot.”

Mark McDowell grew up in North Carolina and graduated three years ago from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he met his wife, Katie. She is also in the Air Force. The husband and wife duo both deployed in April – she went to Iraq, he went to Afghanistan.

Gilbert McDowell said his son called him to tell him about the fatal crash.

“When he told me, he says, ‘Mark’s plane went down.’ And that was the beginning, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The night before he left to go overseas, I called him and talked with him and had prayer with him over the phone.

“In all honesty, I thought he was safe. He said, ‘Granddaddy, don’t worry about me. Do you realize that none of these planes has ever been shot down?’”

Gilbert McDowell said he still isn’t sure if his grandson’s crash was due to human error or if it was just an accident.

“It really doesn’t matter now as far as we’re concerned. We lost a grandson,” he said. “He was too young to die, but a lot of those men are too young to die. But they’re dying and we don’t have the answer. We don’t know.”

Mark McDowell’s body is back in the U.S., and he will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral will be held there when his squadron returns from Afghanistan in a few weeks.

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Erin Coleman, Reporter
Greg Clark, Photographer
Kelly Hinchcliffe, Web Editor

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