SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Flying air tankers over wildfires is dangerous business, but the U.S. Forest Service and its contractors work hard at doing it safely, the agency’s chief said Tuesday in the wake of a deadly air tanker crash in Utah.
Tom Tidwell added Lockheed P2V tankers are safe, but he acknowledged the need to modernize the nation’s aerial firefighting fleet.
Two Idaho pilots aboard a P2V died in the Utah crash Sunday, the same day another firefighting plane of the same vintage was forced to make a crash landing at Nevada’s Minden-Tahoe Airport.
Video of the crash landing shows the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across a runway. No one was hurt.
At a news conference Tuesday in Albuquerque, N.M., Tidwell said the Montana-based company that owned the plane that crashed in Utah has a good track record, including when it comes to maintaining the aircraft. But he said fighting wildfires with tankers is dangerous work.
Tidwell pointed to the military pilots who fly the C-130s cargo planes during firefighting operations. The government previously relied primarily on C-130s for firefighting efforts but slowly started adding P2Vs to the fleet in the early 1990s, then began relying much more on the planes after two C-130 crashes in 2002.
“This is some of the most dangerous flying they do,” he said of the tankers’ pilots. “They’re flying at such low elevations. They’re under a heavy load with the fire retardant and usually around a big fire. It’s not quiet air. It’s very turbulent.”
Also Tuesday, a National Traffic Safety Board investigator arrived at the scene of the Utah crash and began scouring the 600-yard debris field for clues about why the plane went down while battling a wildfire.
Tidwell said investigators also will listen to radio communications leading up to the crash, and interview pilots of the tanker’s “spotter” planes, or the smaller aircraft assigned to guide the aircraft as it dropped retardant.
NTSB investigator Van McKenny said authorities analyzing the crash will consider all potential causes, including weather, mechanical failure and pilot error.
“It will all really depend on what we see, evidence on the ground,” he said.
The tanker was owned by Neptune Aviation. It was built in 1962, according to federal aviation records, but had been modified to fight fires and was among only a handful of air tankers available nationwide. The other P2V was owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev.
Neptune released a statement Monday that said it wouldn’t comment on accident specifics, but noted the aircraft “made contact with the ground while flying in the active fire drop zone.”
Authorities identified the pilots as Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho.
Tompkins’ wife, Cassandra Cannon, said her husband had flown air tankers for 17 years and believed the work he did was meaningful and affected the safety of others. She said Tompkins was dispatched to the wildfire Sunday and immediately began flyovers.
The tanker went down while battling a lightning-caused wildfire that jumped the Nevada border about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower says it appeared a wing tip hit the ground in a rocky canyon. The plane practically disintegrated, killing both pilots aboard.
Firefighters said they didn’t expect full containment of the 8,000-acre blaze burning over rolling hills of pine, juniper and cheat grass until Sunday.
Earlier in the day, Tidwell surveyed the burn scar being left by a massive blaze in southwestern New Mexico that has developed into the largest wildfire in the country. He took an aerial tour of the fire, which has scorched more than 404 square miles since being sparked by lightning about three weeks ago.
Firefighters were building fire lines and conducting more burnout operations to keep the giant Whitewater-Baldy fire from making any aggressive runs along its boundaries.
“We still have active fire within the perimeter, but they’re a little more comfortable that they’ve got a handle on it,” fire information officer Gerry Perry said. “That doesn’t mean the fire is over, but things are looking better.”
The blaze became the largest in recorded New Mexico history after making daily runs across tens of thousands of acres in strong winds.
In Colorado, 13 homes have been evacuated and residents of 53 other houses have been warned to be ready to leave as crews battle a 227-acre wildfire northwest of Fort Collins.
A specialized firefighting crew, firefighters from Greeley and metro Denver, and inmates from Canon City battled the blaze Tuesday. A small air tanker and two helicopters also were helping fight the fire.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.
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