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Remembering Maj. Freyholtz: 'He was the best of the best'

Members of the 319th Air Refueling Wing Base Honor Guard out of the Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota, remove Maj. Michael Freyholtz's casket. The Honor Guard provided full military honors Saturday at Freyholtz's burial in Hines Cemetery. Freyholtz, 34, of Hines, died July 28 in a plane crash in Alaska. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

More than 200 people gathered in the Blackduck High School gymnasium Saturday to honor a "true American hero."

Maj. Michael Freyholtz, 34, a native of Hines and graduate of Blackduck High School, died July 28 with three other men when their C-17 cargo plane crashed during a training run at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

Freyholtz was with the 249th Airlift Squadron in the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard, through which he piloted and mentored other pilots on the C-17.

"There are thousands of Alaskans who share your loss," Brig. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Foster, the commander of the 176th Wing, told mourners.

The funeral, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty attended, was followed by a burial with full military honors at Hines Cemetery.

Freyholtz; Maj. Aaron Malone, 36, of Anchorage; Capt. Jeffrey Hill, 31, of York, Pa.; and Master Sgt. Thomas Cicardo, 47, of Anchorage, died when their cargo plane crashed about a minute after takeoff on a training mission for a planned air show. The crash is being investigated by a military Safety Investigative Board.

Freyholtz had accumulated more than 3,500 military flying hours and flew more than 600 hours in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; he earned the Air Medal.

"He was a true American hero in every sense," recalled Lt. Col. Nathan Braspenninckx, the commander of the 249th.

Freyholtz graduated from Blackduck in 1994, graduated from University of Minnesota Duluth in 1998 and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1998.

He attended undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base and received his Air Force pilot wings in May 2000.

He was a C-17 aircraft commander, instructor pilot and flight examiner while in active duty, stationed in South Carolina and Washington.

In May 2007, he left active duty and joined the Alaska Air National Guard. He worked for Boeing as a C-17 simulator instructor before working for the Guard full-time.

He used his physics degree from UMD to solve theoretical flying-related mathematical problems.

"He knew the C-17 better than any other pilot," Braspenninckx said, recalling Freyholtz's most recent annual performance review. "No. 1 in every category, our absolute best flyer, officer and leader."

He recalled how Freyholtz spent time one-on-one with each pilot to ensure that all passed an upcoming inspection. Pilots ultimately finished with 99.9 percent test scores, which the 249th was the only squadron to do, Braspenninckx noted.

"He made an indelible mark on all of us," Braspenninckx said. "He was the best of the best."

Braspenninckx remembered Freyholtz as a many of many firsts, including that he was the first non-Alaskan native to be hired as a pilot with the 249th.

"We were immediately impressed by his flying talents, his work ethic and, mostly, his Midwestern values," Braspenninckx said.

Freyholtz took part in the squadron's first operational mission and first combat mission.

He also was the first pilot to transport an elephant in a C-17.

Braspenninckx described how The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage had a beloved African elephant named "Maggie," who began responding poorly to Alaskan winters. She had garnered the affection of Bob Barker, the longtime "Price is Right" host, who paid for a C-17 flight to have Maggie moved to a sanctuary in California.

"Mike was, of course, the pilot for that highly sought-after mission," Braspenninckx said.

Dean Steele, a former Boeing co-worker, recalled Freyholtz as a pilot, artist and father.

Freyholtz, whose own photograph of a C-17 at sunset was the cover of his funeral program, was an avid photographer and sketcher.

"But the most important thing to Mike was to be a good father to Trevor and Fiona," Steele said. "They were the center of his life."

The funeral featured a slideshow of Freyholtz's life, showing pictures of him at school, in the military and with his family and children. While photographs changed, one song, "Angel Flight" by Foster Radney, narrated, offering lyrics such as "All I ever wanted to do was fly" and "I love my family and I love this land/But tonight this flight's for another man."

Susan Rock, Freyholtz's older sister, recalled his childhood, describing how he loved adventures, cars and airplanes.

As a boy, he looked forward to "The Dukes of Hazzard" on Friday nights, she said. He would prepare hours before, perfectly lining up the Matchbox cars with jumps and ramps, just waiting for the crash scenes to begin on TV.

She described how, when he was 4, Freyholtz was riding on a three-wheeler with his brother, Shawn. Shawn got off the vehicle for a quick moment but left it running, which gave Freyholtz just enough time to push the throttle.

"He knew how to make it go, but he didn't how to (steer) it," Rock said.

Freyholtz drove head-on into a tractor, flew off the three-wheeler, but landed unscathed.

Rock wondered whether similar experiences led Freyholtz, later, to enter a demolition derby.

She also recalled how, while in the Boy Scouts, he worked tirelessly on a Pinewood Derby entry, and, later, how he worked with Trevor on his son's Pinewood Derby entry - but that one didn't turn out so well.

"They got to the race and realized they had accidentally glued the wheels to the car, so it wouldn't budge," Rock said.

She talked about how he always set, and met, his goals. As a boy, he worked to gain enough pledges one year to win a bike. He earned enough pledges the following year to earn a VCR. But when the next contest came the year after, Freyholtz's father, Harvey, suggested that he let another child win.

"Mike, we are grateful for the time we had," Rock said. "You've been an inspiration for us. We couldn't have asked for a better brother."