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NTSB pinpoints airtanker crash cause

by Webmaster |

Federal regulators said Friday that inadequate maintenance of aging aircraft is to blame in three fatal firefighting accidents over the past decade, including the 2002 crash of a Nevada-based air tanker.

The year before the first of those crashes, the U.S. Forest Service and the aviation companies it contracts with to fight wildfires rejected as too expensive the adoption of safety measures that might have prevented the accidents, according to reports released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"We hope the release of these reports will raise operator awareness of the unique problems that affect these specialized aircraft, and the importance of a thorough maintenance program to detect safety issues and prevent accidents," NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said.

The Washington, D.C.-based safety board ruled that fatigue cracks caused the wings to snap off a C-130A on June 17, 2002, just south of the Nevada state line in Walker, Calif., shortly after its takeoff from the Douglas County Airport in Minden.

The subsequent crash killed pilot Steven Wass, 42, of Gardnerville; co-pilot Craig Labare, 36, of Loomis, Calif.; and flight engineer Michael Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, Calif.

In two other reports released Friday, the NTSB said similar wing fractures are also to blame in the August 1994 downing of a C-130 in Pearblossom, Calif., and the July 2002 crash of a similar air tanker in Estes Park. Colo. Those firefighting accidents claimed five lives.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Interior and the Air Force all agreed in 1993 that the Forest Service should improve C-130 maintenance and implement inspections that might detect such stress fractures.

The Interior Department officials had safety concerns about their contractors using C-130s to dump retardant on wildfires as early as 1991, the NTSB investigation found. Most of the planes had been built in the 1950s and purchased by private companies after being retired from military service.

"The problem here is that the military-level maintenance is considerably more rigorous than what was going on with these airplanes now," said William Waldock, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. "Typically, when private companies are flying them, they're not being inspected at the same intervals. They're not opening up panels and looking inside or doing the X-rays to look for cracks."

But only months before the first of the three crashes, the Forest Service and its private contractors objected "on the basis of the potential economic impact of these requirements," one NTSB report states.