Fighting fire from the skies

Despite four recent tragedies involving the fleet of Lockheed P-3 jumbo airtankers that took the lives of seven firefighters, officials from both local and federal agencies say the planes are safe and ready to fly for this fire season.

The April 20 crash of a Lockheed P-3 Orion on a training mission in Chico, Calif., that killed three crew members, including 45-year-old pilot Brian Bruns of Minden, raised the threat that the entire fleet might be grounded as it was after the National Transportation Safety Board determined fatal crashes in 1994 and 2002 resulted from "fatigue fractures," so-called in-flight stress on the structural integrity of the aircraft.

While the recent crash is still under preliminary investigation with the National Transportation Safety Board, Linda Naill, aircraft dispatcher for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden, says whatever the final determination as to the cause of the tragedy, it won't affect the availability of the quad-engine workhorses.

"The plane that went down was on a check ride," said Naill. "It was not under current contract and had not been inspected by the Forest Service."

Private contracts for the large tankers are maintained by Aero Union Corp. of Chico.

The retired Navy surveillance aircraft, some approaching 50 years old, are capable of carrying up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Randy Eardley, of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, expressed his confidence in the seven P-3s that will come back on contract within the next few weeks.

The NIFC serves as control headquarters and resource center for the nation's firefighting air fleet.

Eardley says the planes are shuttled around the country on an as-needed basis.

At the international level, Eardley says the United States maintains fire-fighting treaties with Canadian, Mexican and Australian forces.

He says most wildfires are capable of being handled locally - in our area, usually by smaller single-engine tankers like the 800-galloon Air Tractor 802Fs based at Minden Airport and Stead Airport north of Reno, as well as a variety of helicopters, including Vietnam-era Bell Hueys.

Naill says the number of 802Fs housed in the area will probably increase as the summer gets hotter and the threat of fires becomes higher.

There will also be 2,000-gallon Lockheed P2Vs available this season, according to Naill.

Sierra Front coordinator Russ Bird says that last summer's Waterfall fire proved that if something big comes up during fire season, "We'll find a way to take care of it."

A record 31 aircraft were involved in the fight against the Waterfall fire, he says, including two of the behemoth Lockheed P-3s.

"I think we're pretty well covered," said Bird.

Meanwhile, the cause of the crash that killed Bruns, Paul Cockrell of Fresno, Calif., and Thomas Lynch of Redding, Calif., in the Lassen National Forest, about 30 miles northeast of Chico, remains unknown.

"They were extremely good pilots," company president and CEO of Aero Union, Terry Unsworth, told NTSB officials.

The men had been on a training mission for this fire season.

n Contact reporter Peter Thompson at or 881-1215.


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