Cohasset,California (AP). 21 April 2005 Rescue crews early Thursday reached the siteof a downed air tanker that crashed in a remote region of Northern Californiawhile on a training flight, sparking a small fire.
Itwas not immediately known whether any of the three crew members survived.
TheP-3 Orion air tanker crashed just before 7 p.m. Wednesday in a rugged area ofthe Lassen National Forest, officials said. The crash site was about 30 milesnortheast of Chico in the north-central part of the state.
Rescueefforts were hampered by the rugged terrain, which made it difficult for TehamaCounty search and rescue crews to reach the crash area, Leona Rodreick,spokeswoman for the Lassen National Forest, said Thursday.
Searchand rescue teams headed in on foot after the steepness of the terrain preventeda California Highway Patrol helicopter from landing at the crash site.
“It’sa fairly remote spot, and it took them a while to find a route in,”Rodreick said. “There are no roads or trails. They had to hike in two orthree miles.”
Shesaid she had no information about whether those aboard survived. The crashsparked a ground fire that had burned two acres by late Wednesday, she said.
Theplane was owned by Aero Union, a Chico-based company that provides aerialfirefighting equipment. The P-3 Orion air tanker is used for retardant dropsduring wildfires. It was not on contract with any government agency at the timeof the crash, Rodreick said.
AeroUnion CEO Terry Unsworth said Thursday he was still awaiting word from searchand rescue officials and declined to release the names of those involved in thecrash until their fate is known. He told the Chico Enterprise-Record that hebelieved the aircraft was “a total loss.”
OnMonday, the National Interagency Fire Center said it had approved contracts toreturn 10 air tankers to the federal firefighting fleet. That included sevencontracts awarded to Aero Union for P-3 Orions.
LastMay, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Interior terminatedcontracts for 33 large air tankers, citing concerns with public safety andairworthiness after two planes broke up in midair in 2002.
AeroUnion fought the government’s move, arguing that it was unfairly lumped in witha Wyoming firm responsible for most of the catastrophic accidents.
Bothof the deadly 2002 accidents involved aircraft operated by Hawkins & PowersAviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo. Both planes lost their wings in mid-flight whiledropping fire retardant.
AnAssociated Press investigation found Hawkins & Powers had a long history ofcrashes and safety problems. By contrast, air tanker pilots, industry expertsand a government inspector said Aero Union maintained high standards whilecompeting for government low bids.
Federal officials later agreed toreturn some large tankers to service if operators could prove the aircraft weresafe to fly. Last summer, eight P-3 Orions were returned.
New tanker crash adds fuel to fire. Three killedin training flight near Chico; federal safety probes take on new urgency
By Steve Geissinger, SacramentoBureau, The Oakland Tribune
Sacramento, 22 April 2005 Theshrinking, worn-out federal tanker fleet meant to attack western wildfires grewsmaller Thursday after another plane crashed, killing three, amid safety probeslaunched this week by the Bush administration and in Congress due to OaklandTribune reports.
Now, with only nine of 23 planes supposedly safe enough to fly thissummer, the crash posed new questions that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will taketo a Senate panel next week, gave added urgency to an administration review andprompted a California congressman to call for a program overhaul that would baseRussian air tankers in the United States.
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, wants to accept theRussian government’s offer to temporarily loan massive Russian jets, Ilyushin-76Waterbombers, and base some in California whilethey prove themselves.
The modern, four-engine jet cancover an area the size of 12 footballfields with one 10-second drop of 11,000 gallons, creating a fireline 300 feetwide and 3,900 feet long. That’s about four times the capacity of the biggestU.S. tankers.
Rohrabacher was already planning to schedule a Saturday news conferenceon fleet safety issues when the crash of a federally contracted P-3 Orion airtanker, which has fought California fires in recent years, came Wednesdayevening during a training flight near Chico.
“This heightens the concern we have that the people responsible arenot doing their job,” said Rohrabacher aide Don Ernsberger.
At the same time, state budget cuts threaten to trim the 23-plane,California-owned fleet by three planes. Together, the developments couldleave holes in air coverage that would allow more small fires to becomefirestorms in California, according to experts.
Rohrabacher plans Saturday to demand drastic steps, including importationof Russian jet air tankers, even though they are costly and must operate overfairly flat terrain.
For years, use of the Russian planes and aircraft from Canada, such asthe SuperScoopers employed by Los Angeles County, has been blocked by the U.S.Forest Service in favor of using small American contractors and aging, dwindlingU.S. military-surplus planes.
The entire 23-plane fleet was grounded in 2002 after two planes brokeapart in the air during retardant drops. Less than a third has been certifiedfor use again.
A blue-ribbon federal commission concluded, among other things, theForest Service uses a flawed contract system that lacks full federal aviationagency oversight and that the aircraft do not have some safety devices common toaviation.
The Forest Service said Thursday it plans to rely more heavily onhelicopters and small crop-duster-type planes, as well as arrange for use of acouple SuperScoopers that can pick up water from lakes or the ocean.
“We’re using helicopters more and more, and they are usuallybetter,” said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes. “We do not feelthere is any crisis whatsoever this summer.”
But independent government reports have concluded a mix of aircraft,including an adequate number of air tankers, are needed for properfirefighting.
The developments also come at a time when homeland security officials areconcerned terrorists coulduse arson to ravage an arid location such as California.
Feinstein, who will query officials Tuesday about the woes during aSenate public lands and forest subcommittee hearing, dispatched a letter citingTribune reports this week to the secretary of the agency that oversees theForest Service, Mike Johanns of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I ask that you personally review the situation and see what can bedone to ensure that there is sufficient aerial firefighting equipment availablethis summer,” Feinstein said.
A secretary said that a spokesman for Johanns was not immediatelyavailable for comment Thursday.
The P-3 Orion that crashed Wednesday evening, a four-decade-old Navysubmarine chaser, was on the last of seven routine training missions when itwent down in LassenNational Forest near Chico without a distress call.
The cause of the crash after a practice fire retardant drop was underinvestigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board.
Aero Union, a Chico-based company, owns the plane that was slated to beunder federal contract this summer.
AirTanker crash supports need for Russian waterbomber
22 April 2005
A P-3 Orion firefightingair tanker crashed on Wednesday killing three crew members as it carried out atraining run over the Lassen National Forest in California.
There is a worry at themoment that if the National Transportation Safety Board discover that thefirefighting air tanker crash was due to a problem common to all P-3s, theremaining craft could be grounded.
Gov. Janet Napolitano wascritical of the authorities for failing to plan for replacements and many havebeen pushing for the Russian IL-76 Waterbomber, which is much more reliable andhas a greater water carrying capacity.
We received the letterbelow from John Anderson, Global Emergency Response:
Photo courtesy of NATO
The IL-76 cargo aircrafthas been used as a waterbomber for more than a decade in Russia and elsewhere.By far the most powerful, proven, firefighting airplane in the world today, thisair tanker exceeds by a factor of four (4) the capacity of ‘large’ US airtankers, laying down a drop pattern exceeding one (1) kilometer, eighty (80) meters wide, in seven(7) seconds. Further, the IL-76 possesses far greater range and speed than anyin the current array of firefighting airplanes on the world market. The IL-76waterbomber is a VAP-2 1.5 hour install/removal tanking kit conversion.
The airplane has stirred adecade’s controversy in the west at a time when more powerful firefightingassists are clearly needed. The US grounded 33 large air tankers afterinvestigations of two crashes in 2002 drew questions about the safety andintegrity of the vintage US ‘large’ air tanker fleet. Only ten (10) of thoselarge air tankers passed testing for service in the 2005 wildfire seasonalthough as many at ten (10) more may be passed into service by June.
While the Australasian FireAuthorities Council, which has tested the IL-76 says it’s a “very, verygood firefighting aircraft”, and while Canada awaits a US decision, thematter hit ABC’s DenverChannel in 2004, apparently calling for a public interestdecision from Americans themselves.
Later that year, MoscowNews reported a continued struggle with US bureaucracy. Efforts of CaliforniaCongressman Dana Rohrabacher may help overcome that difficulty, the news sourcerevealed. Again, in 2004, Canada’s CBC television went national with the issue,featuring accountability interviews with firefighting bureaucrats from bothCanada and the US, a first.
According to Venik’sAviation pages online, in 2000, FEMA requested IL-76 waterbombers (2) to respondto Los Alamos area wildfires. The US Forest Service intervened, denying a needfor these airplanes. Over 200 homes were lost in the ensuing Cerro Grandeblazes.
In 2002, NATO demonstratedthe IL-76 waterbomber at Field Exercise “Bogorodsk 2002” in Noginsk,Russian Federation.
The IL-76 waterbomber hasbeen continuously marketed by Russia-Canada-US joint venture, “GlobalEmergency Response” since 1994.
Pilotkilled Wednesday suffered tragedy when brother, also a pilot, perished in 1995wreck
ByGREG WELTER Staff Writer
PaulCockrell, the air tanker pilot killed Wednesday in a crash near the LassenNational Forest, lost a brother in an air tanker crash in 1995.
Atthe time of their deaths, both men were flying for Aero Union Corporation ofChico.
Accordingto a story in the Los Angeles Times, Gary Cockrell of Paso Robles was piloting afour-engine DC-4 and dropping retardant on a fire near Anza-Borrego State Parkwhen his craft collided with a small spotter plane.
Cockrell,his co-pilot Lisa Netsch of Hemet, and the pilot of the Beechcraft spotterplane, Michael Smith of Hesperia, all perished.
Witnessessaid the spotter plane appeared to hit the top of the air tanker, then clippedoff its tail. Cockrell reportedly tried to keep the plane in the air long enoughto steer it away from heavily populated areas.
Evenso, the crash touched off a massive explosion and caused two homes to catchfire. Residents of one narrowly escaped with their lives.
Wednesday’scrash sparked a wildland fire near the Ishi Wilderness that burned about twoacres.
The1995 crash raised questions about how two experienced pilots, trained to handlethe difficult flying conditions of firefighting, could have collided in clearweather.
UntilWednesday, the crash 10 years ago was the most recent involving an Aero Unionplane.
Tankercrash investigators spend first full day with wreckage. Officials confirm that plane had been loaded with water
Greg Welter /MediaNewsGroup
Tehama, 23 April 2005 -Officials from two federal agencies and three private companies wrapped up theirfirst full day of an investigation Friday into the crash of a firefighting airtanker.
The crash Wednesday nightjust outside the Lassen National Forest killed three veteran pilots, includingthe chief pilot, for Chico-based Aero Union Corp., and destroyed one of its P-3Orion aircraft.
A team of eight expertssifted through wreckage at the crash site until dark, said NationalTransportation Safety Board Senior Investigator Georgia Struhsaker.
She said some are workingto document all four engines and the plane’s propeller, including identificationof any parts damaged or separated from major components during impact.
Another group will identifyand document other major components and diagram where each is found. They hopeto find major sections of the wings, the tail and flight-control surfaces.
“This particulareffort may continue beyond today,” Struhsaker said. “We’ll take asmuch time up there as we need, to make sure we go over things verythoroughly.”
All wreckage so faridentified is within a small area that burned after the crash, she said.”There is quite a bit of wreckage that doesn’t show up very well from theair it’s on a ledge slightly below the tail group.”
Struhsaker said piecesthere include engine debris and significant sections of the wings.
The NTSB team is beingassisted by officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, Aero UnionCorp., Lockheed Martin and Rolls Royce Allison, the maker of the plane’s turbineengines.
Another team is at theChico airport reviewing maintenance records for the aircraft, pilot trainingrecords and log books.
“It’s a prettysubstantial job,” Struhsaker said. “We’ve got four engines, fourpropellers and a fairly complicated airframe.”
Other pilots who flew theairplane the day it crashed will also be interviewed.
Struhsaker said the remainsof the pilots were recovered Thursday from the crash scene by the Tehama CountyCoroner’s Office. She said she couldn’t comment on how the remains wereidentified.
The crash killed captainsBrian Bruns of Minden, Nev., Paul Cockrell of Fresno and Tom Lynch of Redding.Lynch was identified as Aero Union’s chief pilot, although all three men hadyears of experience flying tankers.
The plane was on itsseventh training run Wednesday when it crashed.
Struhsaker confirmed it hadtaken on 2,550 gallons of water at the Chico airport, but it isn’t known yet ifthe plane was dumping the water or attempting to dump it when it wentdown.
Residents as far as 20miles from the crash scene reported seeing a fireball after the crash. Ittouched off a two-acre wildland fire and several spot fires which an enginecompany and a 20-person hand crew from Lassen National Forest were brought in tocontain. A spokeswoman said the crash scene is being watched for flare-ups, buttotal control of the fire is expected by Monday at the latest.
Very little in the way of acause had been ruled out as of Friday by the investigation team, Struhsakersaid. Even the possibility of sabotage was being considered. But officials saidthe site isn’t considered a crime scene currently, but an aviation accidentscene.
“There is no record ofany distress calls being made from the airplane,” she said.
Aero Union has alreadyleased four of its P-3 Orion tankers to the U.S. Forest Service to operate inother states. The original contract called for seven Aero Union planes to flyfor the Forest Service this summer, including the crashed plane.
The tankers didn’t flyThursday out of respect for the deceased pilots. NTSB officials said they haveno authority to recommend grounding the planes during their investigation.
Al Ross, Aero Union’sdirector of Washington operations, said the crews of the contracted planes askedto resume flying after being polled Friday. He said the Forest Service wasexpected to clear them to resume operations today.
Aero Union is fullycooperating with the NTSB’s investigation, including the release of informationregarding the crash. Speaking generally, Ross said Aero Union has completeconfidence in its aircraft, maintenance and employees.
He said a memorial serviceis being planned for the deceased pilots but details are unknown.
“This is not so much arisky business as an unforgiving one,” Ross said. “Our priority in theshort term as a company is to see to the families and to make sure they aretaken care of in every way that we can.”
ER staff writer Ryan Olsoncontributed to this story.