Tanker Crashes Cause Forest Service To Examine Capabilities

 - June 11, 2012, 4:45 PM
One Lockheed P2V air tanker flying under contract for the Forest Service crashed fatally and another P2V made an emergency landing on June 3. (Photo by USDA Forest Service)

The fatal crash of a Neptune Aviation Services Lockheed P2V (callsign “Tanker 11”), while doing fire suppression work on the White Rock Fire near the Nevada-Utah state line on June 3, has caused the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to reexamine its firefighting capabilities in the region. The NTSB is investigating the accident.

The Tanker 11 accident in a mountainous, high-density-altitude area 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas claimed the lives of two Neptune pilots, captain Todd Tomkins and first officer Ronnie Chambliss, when the aircraft struck the ground in the active fire drop zone. This accident and the the emergency, partial-gear-up landing of a Minden Air P2V air tanker at Minden Tahoe Airport (MEV), Nev., that same day have reduced the number of fire-fighting aircraft available to the service this season. The left main landing gear of the Minden P2V failed to extend.

Tom Harbour, USFS director of fire and aviation management, said in a statement on June 6, “As the entire fire and aviation community grieves their loss [Tomkins and Chambliss], we must ensure that we maintain our capability … to respond vigorously to wildfires threatening people, communities, infrastructure, and natural and cultural resources.” The USFS currently has nine operational large air tankers on exclusive-use contracts and has arranged to use four additional aircraft.

“Our contracts require [contractors/operators] to maintain their aircraft [both airplanes and helicopters] in accordance with a continued airworthiness program based on FAA standards,” a USFS spokesperson told AIN. “We add additional inspections unique to firefighting work, such as increased fatigue and damage tolerance assessments, as well as supplementary structural inspections.”

Scott Fisher, USFS national aviation operations officer, said that although the contractors hire the pilots, the USFS has an evaluation interview during the process as well. “We look closely at each pilot’s experience in low-level and mountainous operations, as well as dispensing. We evaluate each pilot’s mission skills in accordance with our own ‘Interagency Practical Test Guide.’ All tanker pilots are line checked in-flight at least every two years, with a training and certification paperwork evaluation annually.”