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'Can Do' Attitude May Have Doomed Firefighting Crew

Investigation of air tanker crash that killed 3 in the Sierra reveals that 'silent intimidation' may cause teams to fly unsafe equipment.

March 02, 2003|Scott Sonner | Associated Press Writer

RENO — The three men in the air tanker crew didn't complain to their bosses because it's not what you do if you want to keep flying.

But like others before them, the three who died in a crash while fighting a fire in the Sierra last summer knew the half-century-old aircraft they were flying wasn't entirely safe.

They had friends who died in previous air-tanker crashes while flying under contract for the Forest Service .

And at least one of them, pilot Steven Wass, repeatedly had told colleagues, friends and family of his concerns about the structural integrity of the aging C-130A airplanes, especially the wings, according to a new 831-page Forest Service accident report.

Wass, 42, of Gardnerville, Nev., routinely kept on board with him a copy of an accident report on a triple fatal crash of a plane just like the one he was flying -- a plane that had rolled off the Lockheed production line in 1957 just two serial numbers after his.

That plane crashed in Southern California in 1994 after the wings fell off -- just like his.

"Steve Wass was very aware of the weak structure of the C-130s," according to one of more than 40 witnesses interviewed by Forest Service special agents after the crash last summer near Walker, Calif.

Witnesses' names were edited from a copy of the preliminary accident investigation report that the agency provided the Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request.

One witness indicated that he and Wass "had researched the C-130s and concluded that the A and B models had weak wing structures," special agent Debra Mathews wrote.

Wing Problems

Another witness who knew Wass for more than 20 years said the pilot had "raised pointed questions and concerns about the aircraft, being old with wing problems."

Wass told him that "the airplane was older than he or I, that the military got rid of them for a reason," the witness told Mathews.

The witness "stated that he did not want to see any more of his friends go down."

Co-pilot Craig LaBare, 36, of Loomis, Calif., and flight engineer Mike Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, were also killed in the June 17 crash while dropping retardant in the Sierra about 70 miles south of Reno.

A Reno television crew caught the moment on videotape when the plane's wings broke off and the tanker crashed in a fiery explosion.

LaBare's widow, Laurie, said her husband had talked of maintenance problems with the plane.

'Pieces of Junk'

"It's absolutely ridiculous to put pressure on these men to fly these planes ... these pieces of junk," she told KATU-TV in Portland, Ore., last summer.

The Forest Service has stopped using C-130As to fight fires.

The agency's crash investigation will be followed in coming months by the National Transportation Safety Board's accident report.

The NTSB has said fatigue cracks were found in the wings, and investigators are studying them and other safety issues to determine what caused the wings to fail.

The Forest Service report said the plane had 21,947 hours of flying time, mostly for the Air Force, and that a wing crack was repaired in 1998.

The report said earlier manufacturer tests on similar planes found structural problems after 19,000 hours of service.

The new report echoes findings of a blue-ribbon Forest Service panel that reviewed the nation's aerial firefighting fleet.

Nagging Question

Like the panel's December report, the new document points to the "culture" of federal firefighting forces and tries to answer a nagging question: If crew members feared for their safety, why didn't they complain? Why did they continue to climb into aircraft some labeled "flying deathtraps?"

There's no indication in the report that any of the crew members lodged formal complaints with the Forest Service, federal regulators or the tanker's owner, Hawkins & Powers Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.

The blue-ribbon panel called it "silent intimidation" -- being subtly expected to ignore maintenance or training violations.

"They felt the absence of an employment 'safety net,' and asserted that they have no recourse or appeal process if they are fired," the panel concluded.

In the more recent investigation, Forest Service special agents asked pilots if there were repercussions for refusing to fly.

"They are subtle," said an air-tanker pilot who dropped retardant on the same Sierra fire just hours before the fatal crash. "You get a reputation. USFS [Forest Service] wants us to fly, the operator wants us to fly, so we feel the pressure."

Another said: "If the crew complains, they get tagged as 'trouble tankers.' "

"They are deterred from speaking out," said the witness, who gave an example about a Forest Service employee giving a flight crew a hard time about maps it requested.

"When they complained, they were told to 'check out' because they were being transferred," the report said.

The blue-ribbon panel said an overall "culture that emphasizes cost efficiency also has created an admirable, but hazardous, 'can-do' ethos that pervades firefighting aviation.

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