Forest Service Planes Under Scrutiny

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- The aging airplanes that the Forest Service uses to fight wildfires have been under scrutiny before. But none of the audits or the probes or the memos had the impact of a video showing an air tanker's wings snapping off in flight.

The TV news footage of the plane plunging to the ground in flames, killing all three men on board, transfixed viewers nationwide over the summer.

``It was shocking,'' said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a former airline and military pilot. ``There is no doubt in my mind that it was a tragedy due to a structural failure in that airplane.''

The June 17 crash - and another a month later in which an air tanker lost a wing and went down in Colorado, killing both crew members - have led the Forest Service to appoint an expert panel to conduct the broadest review yet of the agency's aerial firefighting program.

The panel, led by Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, intends to examine all phases of the program, including maintenance and costs, and report back before the end of the year.

``Safety remains our bottom line,'' Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in announcing the panel's formation Aug. 2.

The panel held the first in a series of regional town meetings last week in Atlanta. Further meetings are planned across the West this month.

The crash that was captured on videotape happened on June 17 near Walker, Calif., and involved a C-130A, a cargo plane that serves as the workhorse of the nation's firefighting fleet. The second deadly crash over the summer involved a PB4Y, another type of air tanker that also was dropping fire retardant on flames.

Both air tankers were operated by the same Forest Service contractor, Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.

After the accidents, the Forest Service grounded the five remaining C-130As in its fleet and the four remaining PB4Ys, and they are still out of service. All the planes were military surplus before pressed into firefighting duty. The C-130As date to the 1950s; some of the PB4Ys are even older, dating to World War II.

The NTSB launched its own investigation of the two crashes and said soon afterward that fatigue cracks were found in the wings of both planes. But investigators are trying to determine if that is what caused the wings to fail. The NTSB also said it would look in whether the Forest Service should continue using the planes.

``It's absolutely ridiculous to put pressure on these men to fly these planes, these pieces of junk,'' said Laurie LaBare, whose husband, Craig LaBare, and two others died in the crash in the Sierra Nevada.

Since the first crash, Gibbons has been pressing Congress to conduct an independent investigation, but so far has not succeeded.

``We're very concerned about whether or not these planes are the best aircraft available for the purposes of putting out fires. We are curious about their safety record. We want to know how well the planes are being maintained,'' he said.

``They have been used pretty hard when they were in the military. They are expensive to maintain. They are not as airworthy as the newer models. Those are all issues we need to look at.''

Gene Powers, owner of Hawkins & Powers, defended the contractor, declaring: ``We do a better job of maintenance than anybody in the business.''

But experts both inside and outside the Forest Service have been warning since 1994 - the last time there were two fatal crashes in the same year - that the aircraft were not being maintained properly. Since 1992, there have been seven air tanker accidents and 15 deaths.

``I kept telling them in 1994 and '95 and '96 that you've got to ground these airplanes because they are not being maintained properly and you are going to kill a lot of people,'' said Gary Eitel, a pilot and former aviation consultant from Seattle who testified about the planes' airworthiness to a congressional subcommittee nearly a decade ago.

In 1995, a maintenance manager for the Forest Service reported in a memo to his boss in Oregon: ``In many cases the only time a mechanic is sent is when it is so bad the crew cannot fix it.''

The agency regional aviation officer for the Pacific Northwest took those concerns to then-Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, warning in a 1995 memo: ``The air tanker program seems to be in a state of decline.''

The criticisms were generally dismissed as lacking specific evidence, but a safety team issued a list of recommendations to improve safety.

The spectacular video that helped prompt the latest round of investigations was taken by a KOLO-TV crew. By nightfall that day, the station had provided the Forest Service with a copy of the tape. The NTSB requested one the next day.

``You don't often get documentation like this,'' KOLO reporter Terri Russell said. ``It's not that you ever want to see something like that or witness that, but it will obviously prove fruitful, one would hope, to help them make sure that this doesn't happen again.''