RENO -- The investigation of a firefighting tanker crash in the Sierra this summer has been hampered by missing records -- partly because the C-130A once flew spy missions for the CIA, a federal investigator said.
"Those kind of airplanes basically don't exist records-wise. That could be the reason why we don't have a good history on this airplane," said George Petterson, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Apparently this ... airplane at one point in time was set up along with a few others for electronic surveillance -- as in CIA activity -- somewhere in the world," he told The Associated Press in the first such admission by a government official.
As a result, the NTSB cannot determine the flight history of the former Air Force cargo plane built by Lockheed in 1956. Investigators are unsure whether the C-130A had flown as little as 3,000 hours or more than 20,000 hours with the wing assembly that broke off its fuselage in June, sending all three crew members to their death near Walker, Calif.
The Air Force modified many of its C-130As with new wing parts in the early- to mid-1980s, Petterson said, though he can't tell whether the crashed plane was one of them.
"The modifications were being done because they were having problems with the airplanes' wings cracking," Petterson said. The NTSB investigator has identified fatigue cracks -- one more than a foot long -- in the wings of the plane that crashed in June and he suspects the same structural failure in a 1994 airtanker crash that killed three crew members north of Los Angeles.
The Air Force indicated the records of the wing modifications have been destroyed, Petterson said.
The company that performed the modifications, Aero Corp. in Lake City, Fla., "kept the records for many, many years, but they since have been disposed of," he said.
"It would help make the fatigue cracking a little more understandable" if the plane had flown more than 20,000 hours than if it was only 3,000, he said.
Aero Corp. no longer exists. Michael Moore, general manager of the company that acquired it, Timco Aviation Services of Greensboro, N.C., refused comment.
An Air Force Reserve spokesman at the Pentagon said paperwork typically accompanies surplus military aircraft to the new owner, but he had no information on the plane.
Petterson is the first government official to publicly acknowledge that the C-130A that crashed in the Sierra had been used previously on spy missions. Critics of the Forest Service firefighting fleet have alleged planes on contract to the agency were being used in covert operations after they left the military and were in the possession of private contractors.
This plane -- 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 1990 under an aircraft exchange program that resulted in federal indictments in 1996 and sent two men to federal prison.
Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo., received seven of the C-130As, including the one that crashed in June.
The head of aviation at Forest Service headquarters in Washington said the lack of documentation is a major concern.
"We know some aircraft that were part of the aircraft exchange act ended up flying overseas. I don't know for what agency. If he says CIA, he might be right," said Tony Kern, national aviation officer.
"We also are aware there are gaps in the records of these aircraft, not just for that period of time, but records that never were transferred across from the military.
"If you don't know the flight hours, that's a big problem," he said.
The aircraft exchanges were halted under the Clinton administration, but most of the planes remain in the hands of the private contractors.
The transfers were portrayed at the time as necessary to bolster the Forest Service's depleted firefighting fleet.
But Gary Eitel, a former Vietnam War combat pilot who filed a whistleblower lawsuit to try to force the return of the planes to the government in the mid-1990s, testified before Congress that the CIA used the Forest Service to cover up its use of the aircraft for secret missions.
During the August 1993 hearing, former Rep. Charles Rose, D-N.C., then chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on forestry, said he suspected planes from the exchange program were being used to fly covert missions overseas. He called the hearing after the Agriculture Department's inspector general discovered two of the C-130As hauling cargo in Kuwait in 1991.
One of the men who was sentenced to prison, former Defense Department employee Roy Reagan, was a private broker when he obtained those two planes for T&G Aviation of Chandler, Ariz., as well as aircraft for Hawkins & Powers, including the one that crashed in the Sierra.
Reagan also was the broker who obtained from the Air Force a C-130A that crashed in Angola in 1991, killing all three crew members, including the nephew of Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa.
Weldon said the U.S. government told him the plane was on a relief mission, but that he suspected it was being used by the CIA.
Kern said the Forest Service must have complete documentation on its firefighting fleet.
"This is a major issue we are going to address with whatever aircraft we go with next. ... I want to know when an airplane is structurally dead and when it was put in the air for its first flight hour," Kern said.
"We need to have that so 20 years from now there's not another guy in this seat asking 'How the heck did we get into a scenario where the NTSB can't find records on these aircraft?"'
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