MINDEN - If firefighters had received more heavy air tankers on Wednesday night, the Waterfall fire could have been stopped before any homes burned, according to pilots working the fire Friday.
"If we had two more tankers on Wednesday like we ordered - it's hard to say, but I'd bet my whole paycheck for the year - we could have held it at maybe 50 acres or so," said P-3 Orion tanker pilot Jim Leslie.
Military surplus tanker planes were grounded after five people died when two came apart in the air in 2002. Investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration listed fatigue cracks as the probable cause of both crashes.
The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have stopped using C-130A and PB4Y aircraft - like those which broke up in the air - to fight fires.
Remaining tankers must pass a thorough inspection done by DynCorp Technical Services before they are allowed to fight fire. Out of the national fleet of 33 tanker planes, seven have been cleared.
Minden Air Corp. owns two P-2 Orion airtankers which have not been cleared to fly. They are scheduled to be inspected Monday.
Co-owner and pilot Len Park said it pains him to watch homes burn while his tankers sit unused.
"We have a couple planes right here, sitting on the tarmac, not being used. And the reason they are not being used is because the Forest Service is not being timely in getting the inspections done," Park said earlier in the week.
Aero Union, a Chico, Calif., company, has had several of its eight P-3 Orions cleared for use. While the company owns three older P-2s, it's possible they might never use them again, Leslie said.
This is partially due to the less complete histories kept on the older aircraft. Full histories and maintenance records are required by the new FAA rules.
Another tanker pilot, Greg Hoch from New Mexico, said older planes such as the C-130A and PB4Y are not only old and well-worn but may have had design flaws.
Three people died near Walker, Calif., on June 17, 2002, when the wings folded off a C-130A after it dropped a load of retardant.
He said later designs such as the C-130B had reinforced wings.
Lewis said he's not unhappy with the Forest Service for taking their time and doing careful inspections.
"I appreciate the fact they are interested in our safety, I really do," he said. "It's just that this process needed to start last year, not at the beginning of this fire season."
Contact Karl Horeis at email@example.com or 881-1219.