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Firefighting Air Tankers Grounded For Safety Concerns

Wildfires: Planes are ordered to be inspected after the second deadly crash within a month.

July 21, 2002|JON SARCHE | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

DENVER — The nation's firefighting fleet of heavy air tankers was grounded Friday during one of the worst wildfire seasons on record after the second deadly crash since June in which a plane broke apart while battling a blaze in the West.

Thirty-two of the planes were ordered to remain on the ground for 24 hours by the National Interagency Fire Center.

"The purpose is to allow contractors to inspect planes and give crews some rest," said Jack deGolia, spokesman for the fire center.

In addition, four tankers of the same model as the one destroyed in the latest accident will not fly until federal investigators figure out what went wrong.

In the meantime, wildfires across the West are being fought with smaller, single-engine tankers, helicopters, smokejumpers who parachute into burning areas, and ground crews equipped with bulldozers.

On Thursday, a World War II-era PB4Y-2 Privateer crashed while battling a wildfire 45 miles northwest of Denver. Witnesses said it broke apart in the air. The two crew members were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Forest Service are investigating.

On June 17, a C-130A air tanker crashed after its wings snapped off near Walker, Calif. The five remaining C-130A firefighting aircraft were grounded at the time and have yet to return to the air. The accident is still under investigation.

"It would be irresponsible on a structural failure that severe to fly them until we knew why that happened," deGolia said of the C-130A's. "Was it that particular aircraft, was it a mechanical fluke, or something common to that type of airplane?"

Both tankers that crashed were owned by Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo. The tankers were under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

Thursday's crash brought to 11 the number of people killed fighting wildfires nationwide this year. Five died in a traffic wreck in Colorado en route to a fire, and one was crushed by a fire-damaged tree in Colorado.

The grounded planes are 42 years old, on average. Industry experts said they believe the aging fleet could continue flying safely.

"Older airplanes do not mean unsafe airplanes," said William Broadwell, executive director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Assn. "The military flies airplanes that are exactly as old. As long as it's maintained properly, it's a safe aircraft."

Ryan Powers, operations assistant for Hawkins & Powers, said the company's planes are inspected by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service.

"You can't simply say it's an old airplane. A lot of newer aircraft have a lot more time on them," he said. He said Hawkins & Powers is working with the FAA and the NTSB.

The Privateer had made several drops of fire retardant and was carrying another load when it went down. The crew members were using routine tactics, said Larry Helmerick, a Rocky Mountain Fire Information Office spokesman. "It was a normal day for aerial resources," he said.

The tankers' absence was felt Friday at the 1,000-acre wildfire where the Privateer crashed. "The fire is in rough terrain. It is hard to get crews in. Air power is about the only thing you can do," incident commander Joe Hartman said.

Tanker pilot Gene Wahlstrom, a 22-year firefighting veteran, said from Grand Junction that he is confident his occupation is as safe as possible.

"The planes are taken in each winter and gone through extensively," he said. "I wouldn't be doing this if they weren't."

So far this year, 3.5 million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires.

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