Air tanker that crashed had wings repaired; fleet grounded
WALKER, Calif. — The air tanker that crashed, killing three crew members fighting a Sierra Nevada wildfire, had cracks in its wings repaired four years ago, a representative of the plane’s owner said Tuesday.
The plane was fighting the 14,780-acre Cannon fire about 60 miles south of Carson City when it suddenly went down Monday.
The Mono County Sheriff’s Department identified the crash victims as pilot Steven Wass, 42, of Gardnerville; co-pilot Craig Labare, 36, of Loomis,Calif.; and crew member Michael Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, Calif.
The C-130A Hercules, being operated under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, had just completed a pass over the blaze when its wings snapped off and the fuselage plunged to the ground and burst into a ball of flames.
Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. notified the Federal Aviation Administration in April 1998 that an inspection discovered two 1-inch cracks in the surface or “skin” of one of Lockheed-built plane’s wings, according to an FAA document obtained by The Associated Press.
The damage was repaired and no subsequent problems were reported, a company employee said Tuesday night.
“All I can tell you is there were some wing repairs done to the aircraft. I don’t know the extent of that,” said Diane Nuttall, an administrative assistant at Hawkins & Powers in Greybull, Wyo. She said she did not know when the repair work was done.
Records show the 46-year-old aircraft passed its last major inspection in October.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator said a television station’s videotape of the crash could provide some clues to what happened Monday.
“Near-simultaneous wing failure — I’ve never seen it (before),” said George Petterson, the lead NTSB investigator at the crash scene in this mountain resort town.
Petterson said he was not aware of the earlier wing problem but that it would be examined.
“I have no idea if that’s related to what we’ve got,” he said.
The National Interagency Fire Center grounded the other six C-130As the Forest Service has under contract to fight fires nationally among its fleet of 43 airplanes.
“They will be shut down until a preliminary investigation can determine what happened to this particular aircraft is unique or that there is some sort of structural problem with all C-130s,” said Ed Waldapfel, a Forest Service information officer at the fire center in Boise, Idaho.
Hawkins & Powers notified the FAA of the wing cracks in a “Service Difficulty Report” describing them as near a rivet hole on the bottom of a wing.
“They’re fast and an ideal platform for getting retardant out,” said Doug Swantner, aviation manager in the Sierra Front office in Minden.
Swantner said he had been working with the type of plane that crashed for a decade and never had any problems.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he added. “It looked like there was maybe an explosion before. Maybe something went in an engine … It looked like something blew and then the thing just folded.”
The Cannon fire is burning east toward the California-Nevada border and was 15 percent contained as of 6 p.m. Tuesday. More than 100 homes are threatened by the fire. Firefighters say they don’t expect to have the fire contained for a week or more.
Investigators were trying to determine if a practice campfire set by Marine trainees started the blaze Saturday.
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