Spectacular crash brings new scrutiny to Forest Service firefighting planes

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RENO, Nev. (AP) -- The aging airplanes that fight wildfires under federal contract for the Forest Service have been under scrutiny before. But none of the audits or probes or letters had the impact of the horror caught by a Reno television news crew in the Sierra this summer when an air tanker's wings snapped off in mid-air.

The video of the plane plunging to the ground in flames, killing all three men on board, transfixed television viewers nationwide.

"It was shocking," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., an ex-airline and military pilot who is pressing Congress to conduct an independent investigation of the aircraft program.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it was a tragedy due to a structural failure in that airplane," he said. "... It's one of the reasons why this investigation is so critical and important."

A month after the June 17 crash near Walker, Calif., another airtanker operated by the same contractor -- Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo. -- crashed near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, killing both crew members.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to put pressure on these men to fly these planes ... these pieces of junk," said Laurie LaBare, whose husband, Craig LaBare, and two others died in the Sierra crash.

Forest Service officials say a new blue ribbon panel, led by Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is conducting the broadest and most thorough review of the agency's aerial firefighting program to date.

"The current accident rate is unacceptable," said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "We hope that through NTSB findings, and the information gathered by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Aviation, we can select a course of action that will guide us in future aerial firefighting operations both for improved safety and cost effectiveness."

The NTSB said shortly after the fatal crashes this summer that fatigue cracks were found in the wings of both planes, and investigators are looking closely at the cracks and other safety issues to determine if they caused the wings to fail.

In an update on the NTSB investigation this month, board officials said preliminary tests showed metal fatigue was not evident over the entire wing in either plane, but "in some locations current crack detection techniques may have been unreliable."

The NTSB said it would review the design, mission and operating limits of the tankers to determine if the Forest Service should continue using them.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has charged the new blue-ribbon panel with reviewing "safety, operational effectiveness, costs, sustainability and strategic guidance." The panel plans to collect input at regional town meetings.

"We're not in a position to draw conclusions," Hall said Wednesday from Atlanta, where the panel conducted its first meeting. "We are in the 'Jack Webb phase' of the investigation -- just the facts." It was a reference to the classic detective show, "Dragnet."

Meetings are planned at Portland, Ore., on Oct. 7; Salt Lake City, Oct. 9; Denver, Oct. 10; Albuquerque, Oct. 22; and Sacramento, Oct. 24.

In addition to the five remaining C-130As dating to the 1950s, the agency also is reviewing the other firefighting planes, including the 19 Beechcraft Barons it owns itself for use as lead planes.

"All these aircraft are aging and we anticipate the fleet of Barons will need to be replaced over the next five years," Davis said.

Gibbons said he's be eager to hear the results of the Forest Service and NTSB investigations.

"But if it's a persistent pattern, that's where we in Congress need to step in," he said.

"We're very concerned about whether or not these planes are the best aircraft available for the purposes of putting out fires. We are curious about their safety record. We want to know how well the planes are being maintained," he said.

"They have been used pretty hard when they were in the military. They are expensive to maintain. They are not as airworthy as the newer models. Those are all issues we need to look at," he said.

"We'll let the blue-ribbon panel do whatever it needs to do, but we also want to have our inquiry. Perhaps their agenda may be different from what our interests are. ... We want to take out any presumptions that may be in their study."

"Three men lost their lives in that accident. Everything we do has to make sure they did not die in vain and that others might follow in their footsteps."

Gene Powers, owner of Hawkins & Powers, defends his maintenance practices, declaring: "We do a better job of maintenance than anybody in the business."

But experts both 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 being maintained properly. 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, a pilot and former aviation consultant from Seattle who testified about the planes' airworthiness to a congressional subcommittee nearly a decade ago.

A maintenance program manager for the Forest Service reported in a June 1995 memo to his boss in Redmond, Ore.: "In many cases the only time a mechanic is sent is when it is so bad the crew cannot fix it.

"Flight crews should not be doing most of the maintenance to the aircraft. When we allow this to happen the only things repaired are the items that are broken to the point the aircraft cannot fly," Richard R. Watkins wrote.

Patrick J. Kelly, the agency's regional aviation officer for Oregon and Washington at the time, took the concerns to then-agency Chief Jack Ward Thomas.

"The air tanker program seems to be in a state of decline," Kelly wrote in a memo Aug. 22, 1995. "The air tanker accidents and incidents with serious potential of the past several years only highlight the concern."

The inspectors' criticisms were generally dismissed as lacking specific evidence and documentation, but a safety team nonetheless issued a list of recommendations intended to improve safety.

This year, in the aftermath of the fatalities, the Forest Service grounded the remaining five C-130As in the fleet and four PBY-4s, like the one that crashed in Colorado, and they remain out of service. In August, they ordered a reduction in weight most of the airtankers are allowed to carry.

The attention this year is especially intense because of the television images, the product of a seasoned TV crew that spends part of every summer chasing wildfires across the Sierra Nevada. They knew that in terms of television visuals, it doesn't get any better than a big, lumbering airtanker dropping red retardant on a raging wildfire.

"The tanker shots are the money shots. They are the pretty shots. They are so neat, dropping the red retardant. They take up the whole screen," said Terri Russell, a veteran reporter at KOLO-TV.

The crew was in the evacuated town of Walker, Calif., "shooting scarecrows, the wind blowing things, a door going 'creeeaaaaaak," she said, when the tanker flew over.

"It makes a drop and I look up and see there's flames coming out of the right wing. And instantaneously I thought, 'That's not good' and boom, it just went down. ... I just saw it spiral and you knew it was going right into the ground. You knew nobody was going to walk out of that alive."

By nightfall, the station had provided the Forest Service with a copy of the tape. The NTSB requested one the next day.

"You don't often get documentation like this," Russell said. "It's not that you ever want to see something like that or witness that, but it will obviously prove fruitful, one would hope, to help them make sure that this doesn't happen again."


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