GREYBULL, Wyo. — In the 3 1/2 years since two of its aircraft broke up in flight, Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. has gone from being one of the country's largest aerial firefighting firms to the brink of bankruptcy.
It has lost key government contracts for the use of most of its heavy air tankers and essentially has been forced from a business it helped pioneer.
There have been lawsuits, layoffs and a change in direction. New management has taken over in an effort to satisfy creditors and turn the company into a viable airplane refurbishing business that could be sold to a new operator.
With what may be its final refurbishing job -- fixing up a C-130 Hercules cargo plane under a military contract -- only a few weeks from completion and no buyer for the company committed, maintenance director Tim Mikus and other employees are weighing job offers and hold only dim hopes that the doors here will stay open.
"If it had been one accident, I think the air tanker business would still be going strong and that the company would still be going strong," Mikus said in a recent interview at the company's headquarters here. "But the two of them...."
Like Hawkins & Powers, the entire aerial firefighting industry faces an uncertain future.
Some companies are struggling to regain financial footing in the 19 months since the federal government canceled contracts for large air tankers used to drop retardant on wildfires. The move was prompted by concerns raised about the planes' airworthiness and public safety after the crashes. Although some planes were allowed to return to service later, their numbers were sharply reduced. And the government has fortified its firefighting arsenal with single-engine air tankers and helicopters.
Tanker operators like Len Parker, an owner of Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev., maintain that their planes are safe. But questions remain about what role the aging fleet of modified military aircraft and other planes should have in the future.
"If you look at this business, you could make the argument that, without the two structural failures, maintenance-wise, this business has been a very, very safe business," Parker said.
Aerial firefighting is inherently risky, involving the use of low-flying aircraft that must endure high-stress maneuvers in the turbulent air over forest fires. Since 1974, 62 people have been killed in 39 air tanker accidents, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Some say the loss of five aerial firefighters in June and July of 2002 was a wake-up call for the government and industry. But so were the later findings by federal safety investigators that fatigue cracks in the wings of the planes -- a C-130A and PB4Y-2 -- probably caused the fatal crashes, with inadequate maintenance procedures for detecting such cracks contributing.
The PB4Y-2 was among the oldest aircraft in the firefighting arsenal, dating to the mid-1940s, according to a fire official and an accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The plane's left wing snapped in Colorado, killing two.
Mikus and George Dubry, Hawkins & Powers' chief inspector, maintain that the cracks were in areas that couldn't be seen without taking the plane apart and that, had the company known about the potential for fatigue cracking in the wings, they would have looked for and corrected the problem.
At least one lawsuit is pending that lists the company and a number of others as defendants and alleges wrongful death, among other things. It was filed by relatives of the two men killed in the Colorado crash.
The federal government, which for years relied on the private companies it contracted with to ensure the air tankers were safe to fly, never terminated contracts with Hawkins & Powers for inspection or safety violations, said a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
But after the crashes, the government stopped using both types of aircraft involved, leaving Hawkins & Powers unable to fly most of its planes for the federal agencies, company officials said.
Hawkins & Powers got one of its P2V-7s into the air, briefly, in 2004. But that May, the government terminated the contract it had for all 33 air tankers after concerns were raised over the airworthiness of the fleet. Although some aircraft were later cleared for service, Hawkins & Powers decided to get out of the aerial firefighting business.
Layoffs began in late 2004; the number of employees, at one time around 200, fell to about 19 at its lowest point, President Jim Taggart said.
Taggart, a crisis manager, assumed leadership of the company last year in a bid to turn it around. Dan Hawkins and Gene Powers, who had run the company since the late 1960s, did not respond to interview requests.
Taggart hopes an outside group will take over what he says has become a profitable, promising refurbishing business -- and maybe give it a new name and a fresh start. The 50 or so workers left in Greybull know that they could be out of work come February if that doesn't happen.
"It's not been a good few years, but everybody's learned," Mikus said. "I figure, even if this whole thing goes out of business and I have to find another job somewhere, we're a whole lot smarter because of it. We might not like it, but we're a whole lot smarter."