washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Nation and Politics

3 Pilots Die in Crash of Firefighting Plane

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A03

A firefighting aircraft that was scheduled to operate for the U.S. Forest Service next month crashed in a northeastern California forest Wednesday evening, killing three crew members aboard.

The wreckage was spread over an area of steep, rocky terrain on the edge of the Lassen National Forest and caused a fire that consumed more than two acres on impact, Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Perry said. Forest Service and local firefighting crews were able to contain the fire by yesterday morning, Perry said.

Debris from the single-plane crash Wednesday evening marks the rocky terrain near the edge of Lassen National Forest in California. (John Stubler -- Redding Record Searchlight Via AP)

Government safety investigators who arrived at the scene 30 miles outside Chico, Calif., yesterday said they could not determine the cause of the crash, but the accident renewed safety experts' concerns about the continued use of aging military planes to fight fires under difficult conditions that they were not designed to fly in. The National Transportation Safety Board cautioned the Forest Service about its use of converted military planes to fight fires last year after two fatal accidents in 2002, when the planes literally broke up during flight because of cracks caused by fatigue.

"This is a very important issue," said NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners, who said it was too early to determine the cause of Wednesday's crash. "You have people whose jobs it is to save lives, and we don't want their lives at risk."

In response to the NTSB's concerns, the Forest Service terminated its contracts in May 2004 with companies that flew 33 aging planes, including the one involved in Wednesday's accident. The Forest Service allowed seven aircraft, including the Lockheed P-3B involved in the accident, back into service two months later after concluding that they were safe enough to fly.

The Forest Service has decided to stop operations for the next several days with Aero Union Corp., which owns and operates the plane that crashed, as well as a fleet of seven other P-3s, to allow the company's pilots to recover from the tragedy, an agency spokeswoman said. The Forest Service has not decided whether to take further action.

"It's a difficult place to be," said Forest Service spokeswoman Rose Davis. "Until the NTSB gives us a clue of what to look for, at this point we don't have any idea that anything's wrong with [the planes.] It would be speculating to do anything. We don't know if it was equipment or operator error or something else."

The P-3B that crashed was a four-engine turbine engine aircraft built in 1966 and used by the Navy. The Navy sold a number of the aircraft after the Cold War to companies such as Aero Union, which retrofitted them with tanks to fight fires. The P-3 that crashed was fitted with a 3,000-gallon tank to carry fire retardant. The NTSB said the plane was flying its seventh flight of the day to conduct qualification checks for pilots scheduled to fly the plane for the upcoming fire season.

Aero Union, a 45-year-old company with 200 employees based in Chico, owns 13 air tankers and has operated firefighting flights for the Forest Service for many years, according to the agency. The company's president and chief executive, Terry Unsworth, told several news publications last year that he believed the grounding of air tankers last year was unfair.

Among those killed in the crash were Aero Union's chief pilot, Tom Lynch, and pilots Brian Bruns and Paul Cockrell, the company said.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company