By Tom Gardner, Associated Press
RENO, Nev. - A Navy surplus plane being used on a cloud-seeding mission in the Sierra crashed just after taking off Monday from the Stead Airport north of Reno, killing all three people on board.
The fatal crash occurred shortly after 10:30 a.m. one mile north of the airport, said John Doherty, a spokesman for the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute.
Witnesses said problems began almost immediately and the pilot tried to return to the runway at the airport about five miles north of Reno and the site of the city's annual air races. The airport has no control tower.
''It went a little bit nose high, then it went hard right - right wing low - and then it leveled or appeared to level from where we were and we both thought he was OK,'' helicopter pilot John Stone said. ''Then it went into another hard right bank, right wing real low - probably 90 degrees - and we saw it sliding sideways down.''
Federal Aviation Administration officials were investigating.
The names of the victims have not been released. Doherty said they are Advanced Aviation employees, and not with the research institute.
The institute contracted for the use of the plane with Advanced Aviation of Reno for a cloud-seeding mission in the Sierra Nevada south of Lake Tahoe, he said.
The institute had turned on ground-based generators in an effort to squeeze every possible drop of water out of an approaching storm. The plane drops silver iodide crystals in areas the ground generators can't reach.
The Desert Research Institute typically seeds clouds during Sierra storms to increase the winter snowpack that provides summertime water to western Nevada.
It was the second fatal plane accident involving an institute flight. Two pilots and two scientists were killed during a research mission 20 years ago last month.
The victims included research engineer Peter Wagner, the husband of former state Assemblywoman, Sen. and Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner.
Also killed were the pilot, John Lapham, a former board chairman of the Reno National Championship Air Races; William Gaskell, an assistant research professor, and co-pilot Gordon F. Wicksten.
The B-26 Temop II plane left the Stead Airport on March 2, 1980, on a research mission and crashed in a ball of fire near Bald Mountain in the Sierra southwest of Lake Tahoe.
The twin-engine plane involved in Monday's crash was a Grumman S2F-1 Tracker used by the Navy in anti-submarine warfare. About 500 were built between February 1954 and early 1968.