RENO -- Federal safety investigators are trying to determine why an airtanker fighting a wildfire for the Forest Service crashed in the Sierra this summer. Critics say their time would be better spent trying to learn why the vintage military surplus plane was in the air in the first place.
The C-130A cargo plane that took three crew members to their deaths would have been pulled from fire duty years ago if the Forest Service had listened to warnings from the agency's own experts, the Agriculture Department's inspector general, the federal government's property manager, a private whistleblower who sued in protest and federal prosecutors in the Justice Department's fraud unit.
"This is the Achilles heel of the nation's firefighting effort," said Jim Lyons, who directed the Forest Service as assistant agriculture secretary for natural resources during the Clinton administration. "It reminds me of the question I always used to ask when I was there: Why the hell do they continue to fly these old death traps?"
The Forest Service was told repeatedly that the 46-year-old aircraft with the wing that snapped off near Walker, Calif., in June should not have been released from the Air Force "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., in 1988 and virtually given to Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.
Hawkins & Powers is a longtime firefighting contractor which, along with others, has been hired for decades for the dangerous mission of dropping retardant on wildfires in rough, inaccessible terrain.
The company insists it legally secured the plane that later crashed and said its aircraft are safe.
Critics say planes like this one that the government traded hoping to obtain historic, museum quality aircraft -- many of which turned out to be worthless junk -- were not being maintained to stringent Air Force safety standards. They say the planes should have been returned to the U.S. government years ago due to the illegal nature of the exchanges.
The plane that crashed in the Sierra -- Tanker 130, Serial No. 56-0538 -- was one of nearly two dozen the Air Force released to private contractors in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The aircraft exchange program later brought federal indictments in 1996 and sent two men to federal prison.
The exchanges were halted under the Clinton administration, but most of the planes remain in the hands of the private contractors. One crashed in 1994, also killing three crew members.
The transfers were portrayed at the time as necessary to bolster the Forest Service's depleted firefighting fleet to help save property and lives from devastating wildfires.
But thousands of pages of court documents and correspondence reviewed by The Associated Press suggest the exchange was driven by contractors seeking profits. Some used the planes to moonlight on questionable overseas missions, ignoring U.S. restrictions limiting their use to domestic firefighting.
The Justice Department brought criminal charges and convicted two men of conspiracy to steal 22 planes for their role in the exchange program -- Fred Fuchs, the Forest Service's ex-assistant director of aviation, and Roy Reagan, a former Defense Department official and airplane broker who helped secure planes for Hawkins & Powers and others, including the one that crashed in the Sierra this summer.
Janet Napolitano, the new governor-elect of Arizona who was U.S. attorney in Tucson at the time, said in the 1996 federal indictment that if Reagan's "true status and true intentions" had been made clear, the Air Force "would not have approved the transfer of the aircraft to the Forest Service."
The regional chief of the property management branch for the General Services Administration in San Francisco had told Forest Service procurement officers the same thing a year earlier.
The Agriculture Department's inspector general first recommended the agency repossess the planes after two of them were caught hauling cargo illegally in Kuwait in 1991.
"After the inspector general's report, I think GSA, the Air Force and the Navy all took the position that the government should go reclaim those aircraft," said Ron Hooper, the Forest Service's procurement officer who served as a technical adviser to an independent blue ribbon panel that just completed a review of the agency's firefighting operation.
As recently as November 1998, the Forest Service made an attempt to recover the planes, Hooper said. But the contractors resisted and several of the planes have been tied up in legal battles since in "a variety of jurisdictions," he said.
Justice Department officials maintain the ownership of the planes never legally was transferred to the contractors, but said it wasn't their job to recover the property.
"It was really the Forest Service's place to step in and take those, and they never did," said Patrick Schneider, the chief criminal assistant U.S. attorney in Arizona. He said he does not know why the planes weren't repossessed.
Neither does Rose Davis, chief spokeswoman for the Forest Service's interagency firefighting unit in Boise, Idaho, who referred calls to Hooper.
Even Reagan's defense lawyer at the time questioned why the contractors still were in possession of the planes while his client was being sentenced to 30 months in prison for obtaining the planes for them.
"I frankly think the Forest Service plane issue is a national scandal," said Mel McDonald, former U.S. attorney for Arizona now in private practice in Phoenix.
"The lives of dedicated firefighters are put at risk every time one of those half-century old C-130A aircraft is put in the air," he said earlier this month.
The blue ribbon panel of experts said Friday that the Forest Service's safety record is unacceptable and changes should be made. It specifically faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for taking a hands-off approach when it comes to certifying and inspecting the firefighting aircraft.
The report said safety standards for the contract pilots and crew flying firefighting missions are lower than for those flying other government missions, and the government does not impose special standards on private contractors to reflect the severe conditions in which the aircraft are flown.
"In the panel's view, the fatal airtanker crashes this year were predictable," the report said.
Experts inside and outside the Forest Service have been warning since 1994 -- the last time there were two fatal crashes in the same year -- that the aircraft were not properly maintained. Since 1992, there have been seven airtanker accidents and 15 fatalities.
"I kept telling them in 1994 and '95 and '96 that you've got to ground these airplanes because they are not being maintained properly and you are going to kill a lot of people," said Gary Eitel, an aviation consultant who testified before Congress and filed a whistleblower lawsuit in an unsuccessful attempt to force return of the planes to the government.
The plane that crashed in the Sierra has a history similar to the nearly two dozen others the contractors secured from the government under the exchange program -- including seven to Hawkins & Powers.
Like the others, this C-130A frequently changed hands among the contractors and others, through sublease arrangements in some cases and outright sales with title transfers in others. There were allegations that the repeated title transfers were an attempt to avoid Forest Service restrictions by hiding them in a cloud of paper.
For example, contractor T&G Aviation maintained when it was caught with two of the planes in Kuwait that it did not think it was subject to restrictions because it did not receive the planes from the Forest Service but from Reagan, then a private aircraft broker.
The Justice Department's amended criminal complaint filed against Reagan and Fuchs in U.S. District Court in Tucson Oct. 31, 1996, said Hawkins & Powers and the other four contractors "used the aircraft for other than intended or authorized purposes and sold some of the aircraft parts for profit."
The contractors were named only as unindicted co-conspirators. No charges were brought against them.
Reagan served 20 months of a 30-month prison sentence and Fuchs served his two-year sentence before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their convictions in a 2-1 ruling in July 2000, ruling the sentencing judge failed to give proper jury instructions on the statue of limitations.
Airtanker company had fatal crash
By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO -- Despite the problems faced by planes owned by Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc., there has been no comprehensive review of the Greybull, Wyo.-based company's crash history until now.
Unlike commercial aircraft, no single registry logs accidents involving so-called public service aircraft. Any investigations that do happen are done by whichever federal or state agency contracted with the company, and the information isn't shared.
For instance, an Associated Press reporter found a single reference in a 1985 lawsuit to a June 8, 1979, crash in which two crewmen died when a wing separated from their C-119 Hawkins & Powers airtanker as it swooped down to drop fire retardant.
The crash appeared in no central databases; a hunch from an airtanker pilot ultimately led to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which confirmed the crash.
When crashes are logged with agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board or National Interagency Fire Center, they are cataloged by type of aircraft, not by owner.
"If you're looking for a list of which companies had crashes during which years, we don't have that," said Rose Davis of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "Our problems in the past have been with the model of the aircraft and not the operator."
Aviation and safety experts with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Interior Department's Office of Aircraft Services and the Associated Airtanker Pilots organization invariably said they knew of only a fraction of the Hawkins & Powers crashes.
On Friday, a special review panel was sharply critical of what it said was a disjointed national aerial firefighting program with oversight broken up among several land management and aviation safety agencies.
Hawkins & Powers co-owner Duane Powers defended the company's safety record.
"Our company has the highest safety record, even after the accidents this summer, of any aerial firefighting company in the United States," Powers said. Until this summer, "we had not had an accident in 15 years."
He would not provide his safety rate calculations, but said they were a rough extrapolation from what he called a flawed Forest Service safety report. Based on that extrapolation, he said Hawkins & Powers has an accident rate less than half the average for Forest Service contractors.