Inspections begin on grounded Minden air tankers

MINDEN (AP) - The owners of two grounded air tankers in Minden believe the 7,600 acre Waterfall fire in Carson City could have been slowed at the outset if their firefighting planes were allowed to fly.

Inspections began Monday of the air tankers owned by Minden Air Corp. to determine if they are safe to fly.

"We feel very strongly that if we had been called, the fire wouldn't have gotten out of control," said Janet Parker, Minden Air Corp. president and co-owner. "The damage would have been far less."

But a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said its unlikely the additional tankers could have stalled the fire that broke out last Wednesday and raged out of control for two days, destroying 15 homes and one business.

"Based on the resources that were dispatched to the fire, it's hard to believe that any additional heavy air tankers would have made a difference," said Christie Kalkowski, spokeswoman for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Kalkowski said other conditions including temperatures, wind and drought have to be taken into consideration in battling such an intense blaze.

Minden Air Corp.'s two former Navy planes are among 33 heavy tankers nationwide that were grounded by the Forest Service in May because of safety concerns.

Western states, worried about the ongoing drought and prospects for a severe fire season, prompted the federal agency to adopt a revised safety inspection program in an effort to get some of the planes back in the air.

Seven of the heavy tankers, all owned by Chico, Calif.-based Aero Union, have been certified to fly. Three of the company's P-3 Orions worked the Waterfall Fire.

An inspection of Minden Air Corp.'s two P-2 aircraft - former Navy planes a little older than the P-3s - is expected to last two to three days, said Dave Wardall, deputy chief of aircraft maintenance and engineering for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Wardall said he was assigned to Fort Worth, Texas-based DynCorp Technical Services under contract to the Forest Service to assess the condition of the Minden aircraft.

He said the four-person inspection team will analyze maintenance records and physically inspect the planes before submitting a report.

The Forest Service said a decision on the Minden tankers could be made by the end of the week.

Capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, the large tankers have played a critical role in fighting wildland fires around the West.

But three of the big bombers crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members. After two planes went down in 2002, the Forest Service grounded the fleet.

The planes were returned to service after a new inspection system was developed but 10 of the tankers remained grounded last fire season.


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal


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