In the Shadow of the Ash: The crashes of Tanker 130 and Tanker 123

Tanker 123 crashes in flames over Estes Park, Colorado after its left wing separated in flight. (NTSB)

On the 17th of June 2002, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules aerial firefighting tanker was making a retardant drop over the Cannon Fire near Walker, California, when something went terribly wrong. As stunned witnesses filmed its final moments, both wings folded upward in a ball of fire and the plane plunged to the ground, killing all three crewmembers. As the fire continued to rage uncontained through nearby communities, NTSB investigators set about finding out why the 45-year-old aircraft had broken apart in midair.

But before they could get far, it happened again. One month later, on the 18th of July, another air tanker, this time a WWII-era Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer, suddenly lost a wing while fighting a fire near Estes Park, Colorado. Once again, an onlooker captured its horrific final seconds on camera, snapping a chilling series of photographs as the big four-engine water bomber spiraled down toward the Rocky Mountains, wreathed in flame. With another two crew members dead and a second large air tanker lost, the federal government now made the hard choice to ground many of the nation’s air tankers until the safety of those who flew them could be assured. Investigators would ultimately discover a pattern of neglect that caused both planes to literally come apart at the seams, a pattern which arose from systemic deficiencies throughout this overlooked niche industry. The crashes would also force US government agencies to ask a difficult question: could America’s firefighting fleet be made safe, and if so, who was going to pay for it?

A DC-10 air tanker attacks a fire in Southern California. (Cal Fire)

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When a wildfire bears down on a populated community, filling the sky with smoke and turning day into night, only one thing brings hope to residents confronting this force of nature: the awe-inspiring sight of an air tanker, coming in low over forests and neighborhoods to drop its load of fire retardant in advance of the flames. But while air tankers play a pivotal role in getting wildland fires under control, the operation of these aircraft has historically taken place in a regulatory “wild west” that resulted in by far the worst safety record of any sector of American aviation.

As experts in this field are often quick to admit, aerial firefighting is an inherently dangerous activity, requiring pilots to fly very close to the ground in volatile air conditions while trying to drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant precisely on target. The internet is replete with hair-raising videos of air tankers embarking on steep turns, climbs, and descents in close proximity to terrain, maneuvers which are as much a result of the nature of the task as they are a consequence of cowboy culture or the hubris of mankind. If pilots dropped the retardant from a safe altitude, it would disperse before reaching the target, so flying on the edge of danger is unavoidable, a risk which proper training — historically, not always a given in the industry — can only ever partially mitigate.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules in military service. (Military Times)

Until relatively recently, the vast majority of the United States air tanker fleet was made up of surplus military aircraft fitted with retardant tanks and operating under special Restricted Category type certificates issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. This practice started in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when huge numbers of ex-military airplanes became widely available for bargain basement prices. Heavy bombers, already equipped to drop large payloads, were a popular choice, but as years passed other types of airplanes were modified as well, including coastal patrol aircraft, transport aircraft, anti-submarine aircraft, and more.

One of these was the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a four-engine jack-of-all-trades troop and cargo transporter which entered service in 1956 and is still being produced today. But while C-130s continue to form an important part of militaries around the world, the first generation of the type was retired well over 40 years ago, with many examples winding up in military boneyards — from which some of them would be later converted to air tankers.

N130HP, the aircraft involved in the first accident. (Armen Woosley)

One of the early generation C-130s, which would come to be known as N130HP (or “Tanker 130”), was built in 1957 and retired to a boneyard in the California desert in 1978. Ten years later, a remarkable thing happened: it came back to life as an air tanker.

To understand the background of this airplane, it helps to have a brief overview of how aerial firefighting operations are organized in the United States. While many other countries have fleets of tankers owned directly by the government, this is not the case in America, although government agencies are heavily involved. Responsibility for fighting wildfires on federal land, which covers large sections of the Western United States, falls to two agencies: the Forest Service, which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture; and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a branch of the Department of the Interior. These two agencies, especially the Forest Service, would buy mothballed former military airplanes from the General Services Administration, pay for them to be converted to air tankers, and then sell them to private aerial firefighting companies, which they would then bring in on contract to fight fires each summer.

Another shot of Tanker 130 before its final accident. (Stephen Boreham)

The C-130 Hercules which would become Tanker 130 was purchased by the US Forest Service in 1988, whereupon it was sent to a third party contractor to be restored to airworthy condition and converted to a tanker. It was then sold to a well-established aerial firefighting company called Hawkins & Powers Aviation, based in the tiny town of Greybull, Wyoming. Hawkins & Powers, or H&P for short, operated a diverse fleet of mostly ex-WWII military planes, including Boeing C-97 Stratofreighters, Consolidated PB4Y–2 Privateers, Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars, and Lockheed PV-2 Neptunes. H&P had been flying these planes on fires across the United States since 1969 on a contract with the Forest Service which was renewed each year.

Now christened Tanker 130, the retrofitted C-130 Hercules was granted a Restricted Category type certificate from the FAA, which specified that it could only be used for firefighting purposes and should be maintained in accordance with any applicable military technical orders. In what would later be identified as a sign of the disorganization which plagued the aerial firefighting industry, this certificate became one of no less than five separate similar, but not identical, type certificates granted to C-130s being used as air tankers by various companies. And the certificate holder — the entity responsible for supporting the aircraft from an engineering standpoint — was not Lockheed, not Hawkins & Powers, but the US Forest Service.

Tanker 130 operated under this arrangement without incident for the next 14 years, fighting fires all across the United States. But what no one knew was that with every mission, with every fire extinguished, the plane’s internal clock would tick one step closer to disaster.

This satellite image shows all fires burning in California on June 17th, 2002. The Cannon Fire, where the accident occurred, is the largest one in the upper center, near the Nevada border. (NASA Earth Observatory)

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At around noon on June 15th, 2002, a fire broke out in dry forest and scrubland in a sparsely populated area on the border between Mono and Alpine Counties in California. It was merely the latest in an unusually severe outbreak of wildfires across the American West, but high temperatures, strong winds, and dry vegetation caused it to quickly snowball in size, spreading east out of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and toward the unincorporated community of Walker. Within hours of the fire’s ignition, the Forest Service sprang into action, organizing both ground-based and aerial firefighting efforts. Hawkins & Powers Aviation, responding to its contractual obligations, immediately sent Tanker 130 down to California to join the fight.

Tanker 130 conducts a retardant drop over Walker on the day of the accident. (KXTV News 10)

Tanker 130 was soon flying missions out of Minden-Tahoe Airport in Minden, Nevada, about 55 kilometers north of the blaze, which had by now been christened the Cannon Fire, after nearby Lost Cannon Creek. On board was a crew of three experienced firefighting pilots: 42-year-old Captain Steve Wass, 36-year-old First Officer Craig LaBare, and 59-year-old Flight Engineer Mike Davis, who had a combined 15,000 flying hours, including extensive time in the aerial firefighting industry.

By the afternoon of June 17th, the fire was still expanding rapidly, and Tanker 130 was making one run after another, returning each time to refill its 3,000-gallon (11,300-liter) retardant tanks. At 14:29, having just taken on a new load of retardant, the tanker departed Minden for the sixth time that day, heading south back toward the fire. The plan was to come in low over the top of a ridge, descend a steep slope on the other side, release the retardant, then pull up to safety — just the sort of rollercoaster ride these pilots ran every day. And as the plane made an initial practice run down the valley, residents of Walker, despite an evacuation order, turned out onto their porches to watch it pass and cheer on the crew as they worked to save the town from annihilation.

Bystander video captured the start of the run, and then the moment the plane broke apart. (Fox News)

The practice run went smoothly, and moments later Tanker 130 circled around again for the real drop, skirting the eastern edge of the blaze where it threatened to descend into the town. At a nearby intersection, news crews and locals watched it come over the ridge, some with cameras rolling. They had no idea they were about to capture one of the most terrifying air disasters ever to be recorded on video.

At first, everything seemed normal; the tanker released its load of bright red fire retardant as it descended the east side of the ridge, then began to pull up as it neared the valley floor. But as it did so, disaster struck: the right wing abruptly snapped at its base and began to fold upward, followed by the left wing one second later. Fire burst from the ruptured fuel tanks, pouring from the bases of both wings as they ripped away from the plane, first one and then the other. The fuselage continued forward for a moment, suspended by its own momentum, before rolling inverted and diving toward the ground. It was all over in a matter of seconds, as the remains of the plane crossed US Highway 395 and slammed into an open field, triggering a massive explosion and instantly killing all three crewmembers. Witnesses and firefighters rushed to the scene to help, but it was soon obvious that no one could have survived.

In the aftermath of the crash, the only recognizable part of the plane was its tail. (George Patterson)

The crash of a firefighting plane — unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence — would have been a footnote in the nightly news had it not been caught on film. But with its horrific final seconds immortalized on camera, the crash of Tanker 130 received immediate nationwide attention even before investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene the following day. The video clip was played on TV programs around the world, exposing millions to the horror. People who had never previously thought about aerial firefighting were shocked and outraged. How could both wings just fall off a plane? What would be done to prevent this?

As firefighters worked to contain the new fire ignited by the crash, NTSB investigators departed for the tiny town of Walker, a quiet backwater which suddenly had the eyes of the nation upon it. Residents expressed sorrow that lives had been lost in the fight to save their town, and in fact the consequences of the loss of air support were soon made apparent as the Cannon Fire doubled in size over the next two days and destroyed ten structures. It would not be contained until the 24th of June, having consumed 22,750 acres (9,200 hectares) of federal and private land.

The fire caused by the spilt fuel burned several acres of brushland surrounding the point of impact. (Brian Corley)

Upon examining the wreckage, NTSB investigators noted that the left wing had failed due to overstress during the breakup of the aircraft, but the same could not be said of the right wing. In fact, this wing appeared to have been suffering from metal fatigue for an extended period before the crash, eventually culminating in its catastrophic failure.

It was already known that the earliest C-130 models, including the C-130A (the subtype involved in the accident) had a weak wing design, which was part of why the Air Force had retired them in favor of newer model C-130s after the end of the Vietnam War. The problem was that stress tended to accumulate at the point where the outer wing sections were joined to the center wing section, which was built into the fuselage; this invariably resulted in fatigue damage in this area, eventually necessitating the replacement of the entire center wing structure. A C-130A firefighting plane had crashed due to this problem in 1994, when a wing suddenly separated in flight. And sure enough, the exact same signs were found on Tanker 130. Metallurgical analysis revealed that a fatigue crack, caused by repeated load cycles, had spread through the right wing skin and several structural cross-beams, called stringers, across a total distance of nearly 30 centimeters. Every time Tanker 130 took off or pulled up from a descent, a large load was applied to the wings, causing the crack to grow a little bit longer, until the right wing at last became so weak that it failed completely during a normal retardant drop.

Another view of the plane’s battered tail, stained with fire retardant. (AP/Candice Towell)

Investigators found that the crack was initially hidden behind a doubler plate which reinforced the joint between the center and outboard wing sections, but it later spread out from behind the plate and into areas where it should be have been detectable by even the most basic inspection techniques. The NTSB therefore needed to ask how Hawkins & Powers was maintaining its fleet of antique airplanes. But before they could get to the bottom of the matter, they would be faced with a grim case of deja vu.

Tanker 123, the aircraft involved in the second accident. (JD Davis)

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One of the other planes in H&P’s fleet was Tanker 123, a WWII-era dinosaur which considerably predated even the aged C-130s. Tanker 123 was a Consolidated-Vultee PB4Y–2 Privateer, a four-engine coastal patrol aircraft manufactured by the company that would later be known as Convair and delivered to the US Navy in 1944. It was subsequently transferred to the Coast Guard in 1952, retired from service in 1956, and then purchased and retrofitted as an air tanker by a Utah-based aerial firefighting company in 1958. Finally, in 1969 it was sold to the company that would become Hawkins & Powers Aviation, which had kept it in service ever since.

An Aero Union P-3 Orion drops retardant on the Big Elk Fire in Colorado. That same day, disaster would strike Tanker 123. (Picture Longmont)

On July 17th, 2002, one month after the crash of Tanker 130, a motorist driving along US Highway 36 in Larimer County, Colorado suffered a mechanical problem with their car. As they pulled over to the side of the road, the car’s overheated catalytic converter set fire to some grass. The car’s occupants tried to beat out the fire with a shovel, but in the dry conditions it rapidly spread out of control, forcing them to retreat. Emergency services were soon called to deal with the fire that was now ripping through the dry, forested plateau east of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Once again, the Forest Service took charge, and several companies sent firefighting aircraft to the scene, where firefighters were already battling to prevent the flames from spreading northwest toward the tourist town of Estes Park. One of the planes that flew to Colorado to participate in the effort was Tanker 123, flown by 39-year-old Captain Ricky Schwartz and 56-year-old First Officer Milt Stollak.

Tanker 123 conducts a retardant drop on the day of the accident. (Billings Gazette)

By the evening of the 18th of July, Tanker 123 had made seven drops on the newly christened Big Elk fire so far that day, and was preparing for its eighth. At Jefferson County Airport (now Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport) in Broomfield, Colorado, some 50 kilometers southeast of the fire, the tanker took on 2,000 gallons (7,570 liters) of fire retardant before taking off at 18:14 on what would end up being its final mission.

Arriving at the scene of the Big Elk Fire, Tanker 123 rendezvoused with two other tankers and a Forest Service lead plane, which would fly ahead of the tankers and release colored smoke to mark the desired drop locations. Everything appeared to be proceeding normally as Tanker 123 made a wide left turn over the wooded peaks to line up for its drop, which would be placed in advance of the fire front near Highway 36. And then, seemingly without warning, all hell broke loose.

Tanker 123 breaks apart in midair, captured by an onlooker with a telephoto lens. (NTSB)

Right at the apex of its turn, Tanker 123’s left wing fractured at its base and folded upward, breaching the fuel tanks and triggering an explosion visible for miles. As the wing spiraled away behind it, the tanker entered a rapid descent and rolled hard to the left, spinning around and around as it fell from the sky, consumed in flames. The pilots of the other tankers could only watch in horror as the burning airplane plunged to its doom, slamming into the valley bottom next to Highway 36 just seconds later. A great burst of fire and smoke emanating from the forest testified to its brutal end — and although rescuers would rush to the scene within minutes, it was already clear that both crewmembers had died instantly on impact, and that there would be no one to save.

Part of the severed left wing lies in a forest near Highway 36. (NTSB)

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The following day, NTSB investigators arrived at the scene of another structural breakup involving an air tanker belonging to Hawkins & Powers. And once again, the whole thing had been documented by witnesses. A photographer with a digital camera, watching from a nearby ridge, saw the plane start to come apart and held down the shutter continuously while tracking the falling wreckage, capturing eight crystal-clear photographs before the plane disappeared into the valley. The photos and the distribution of the wreckage showed that the left wing departed the airplane first. And sure enough, when investigators examined the remains of this wing, they found the telltale signs of metal fatigue.

Photos of the fatigue area and its location on the wing, as seen after the accident. (NTSB)

The fatigue had begun at the lower cap of the forward wing spar, the large beam running from root to tip along the inside of the wing’s leading edge. In the area where the spar intersected the fuselage, fatigue cracking had originated in twelve separate locations, most of them around a rivet connecting the spar cap — the flanged strips where the spar attaches to the lower wing skin — to the spar itself. Over many load cycles, these cracks started to link up, forming a single crack which split the spar cap completely in two. The crack then continued outward for over 53 centimeters across the lower wing skin, until finally, on the accident flight, the wing skin and the spar itself both failed under the strain of a normal turn, causing the wing to rip off the plane.

Gutted forest and mangled wreckage was all that was left of the main part of the airplane. (NTSB)

It was immediately clear why Hawkins & Powers never detected this enormous crack: it was hidden behind the modifications made to the plane’s exterior when it was converted to an air tanker in the 1950s. And the inspection regime H&P was using was based on a military manual that didn’t specify exactly what parts needed to be examined, and which in any case hadn’t been updated since 1948.

This raised a key question: how could a large airplane be allowed to operate in 2002 with such primitive inspection protocols? This was a question that went far beyond the jurisdiction of the NTSB, and so in the fall of 2002 the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management set up a Blue Ribbon Commission, led by former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, and gave it 90 days to determine why air tanker operations were so unsafe. The answer would ultimately come to encompass the entire aerial firefighting industry and call into question the very foundations of its existing order.

Tanker 123’s ruined tail section. (NTSB)

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Ever since the 1970s, every commercial airline has been required to develop what’s known as a Continuing Airworthiness Program. The purpose of such a program is to continuously monitor the state of an aircraft’s structures and systems in order to develop a set of inspection and replacement regimes which can ensure the safety of the airplane within the context of its particular use case. For a passenger airline, this might mean proving to the FAA that a major repair does not compromise the design assumptions on which the airplane was certified, or monitoring the degradation of a structure to determine whether it is aging at the rate the manufacturer originally predicted. It seems obvious that such a thing would be useful for aerial firefighting companies, which repurpose old airplanes to perform a dangerous and demanding service that was never envisioned by their original manufacturers. But not only was no such thing required for air tankers, it wasn’t even clear how anyone would go about requiring it in the first place.

Pieces of wreckage fell to earth over a wide area of forest. (NTSB)

In fact, aerial firefighting tankers fell into a legal gray zone in which they were not subject to any qualified oversight. In the United States, airplanes operated solely in service of the federal government are designated “public use aircraft,” a category which is essentially exempt from the Federal Aviation Regulations that otherwise govern every plane in the sky. Safety oversight of these aircraft was therefore the responsibility not of the FAA, but of the government agency to which they belonged, which in the case of air tankers was usually the US Forest Service. At the time of the accidents, there were 44 large air tankers — all belonging to private companies, including Hawkins & Powers — which operated on exclusive contracts with the Forest Service, and therefore fell under the public-use exemption.

The only clear safety requirements for these aircraft were specified in their FAA-issued type certificates, which included only one real provision: that the airplanes be maintained in accordance with any applicable military technical orders. As such, operators of these planes were not required to have a continuing airworthiness program, to carry any black box flight recorders, or even to maintain a safe operation, unless their contract stipulated otherwise. These planes were in fact operating so far outside the federal regulatory framework that their pilots were not subject to OSHA workplace safety rules, and the NTSB did not even have jurisdiction to investigate air tanker crashes until 1996 — prior to that date, such investigations were the responsibility of the Forest Service, which, it should be noted, is part of the Department of Agriculture and has no particular expertise in aviation.

Pieces of the left wing came to rest more than 100 meters away from the main wreckage. (NTSB)

Needless to say, the Forest Service was in no position to ensure the safety of its contracted air tanker fleet. It lacked experts qualified to do this, and it had not made any concerted effort to find any because the non-aviation personnel in charge of the agency believed the safety of the airplanes to be assured by the simple fact that they possessed FAA type certificates. The FAA, for its part, maintained that it had no responsibility to ensure the continued airworthiness of the public use airplanes after approving them in concept, and the law agreed. With both the FAA and the Forest Service believing the other to be responsible for the safety of the tankers, that left only one party which could take on that burden: the companies that owned the airplanes.

But here there was another problem: the very structure of the Forest Service’s contracting system actively punished companies that attempted to operate safely. In fact, the Forest Service, considering itself to be perpetually underfunded, had only one real criterion when selecting aerial firefighting contractors, which was cost. The Blue Ribbon Commission issued a stinging rebuke of this policy, noting that this was “an appropriate objective for food contracts, facility upgrades, or buying office supplies,” but not for airplanes. In fact, safety was not a formal consideration at all, and surprisingly neither was a company’s ability to successfully put out fires, since no one was gathering data on firefighting performance in service anyway. All of this meant that firefighting contractors could expect uniformly low bids from the Forest Service, but there was nowhere else to take their services instead, since the Forest Service was responsible for almost all wildland firefighting in the United States. Companies were therefore forced to make sure that their costs were always lower than the Forest Service’s contract offers, or else they would go out of business. In practice, this meant that most companies simply could not afford to take any safety steps beyond those which were explicitly required, of which there were precious few to begin with.

The inboard section of the left wing fell into this ditch — ignore the NTSB label, it’s not the outboard section. (NTSB)

Furthermore, the uncertainty inherent in the industry prevented companies from taking proactive steps even when time and money were available. The Forest Service typically handed out one-year contracts only, forcing the aerial firefighting companies to bid again every single year. Without any guarantee that they would be contracted again, companies often hedged their bets by not doing any additional inspections or maintenance during the off-season, because if they spent money on these matters and then failed to win a Forest Service contract the following summer, they would risk bankruptcy. In practice, every single winter was a gamble, with companies investing money they didn’t have into their airplanes while feverishly hoping for a renewed contract that would cover their investments. And when summer finally came around, it didn’t matter whether the Forest Service was lowballing them; they had no choice but to take whatever was being offered.

The Forest Service, as almost the sole underwriter of aerial firefighting contracts, could have used this power to demand better safety standards, but it never did so, leaving the contract companies without any financial incentive to improve safety. And as if that wasn’t enough, the contracts also frequently specified financial penalties for periods when the tankers were unavailable for service, incentivizing companies to operate their aircraft in a temporarily unairworthy condition in order to avoid maintenance downtime during the fire season.

This failure occurred because the Forest Service was left with the contradictory roles of both regulator and contracting agency. “The agency cannot require its aircraft contractors to ensure a high-level of safety and quality maintenance, yet provide the associated necessary oversight, while also striving to obtain the lowest-price services possible,” the Blue Ribbon Commission would later write. In practice, the Forest Service left the job of ensuring safety to the FAA, which was in turn leaving that job to the operators themselves, who were incentivized by the Forest Service’s lowest bidder policy to spend as little on maintenance as possible. It was a self-destructive system which made disaster inevitable, over and over and over again.

Let’s return for a moment to the crash of Tanker 130… (Yes, I know about the cursor.) (Fox News)

It was against this background that Hawkins & Powers Aviation maintained and operated its fleet of ancient military surplus aircraft, complying with applicable military technical orders but unable, unwilling, and unrequired to go any farther. And as the NTSB and the Blue Ribbon Commission would discover, it was this operating environment which directly led to the crash of Tanker 130.

The fundamental question was whether the military technical orders that H&P was following were adequate to assure the airworthiness of the company’s C-130s. Everyone already knew that the answer was no, but how bad was the problem really? Scientific studies both before and after the accidents shed some light on the issue. In one 1974 NASA study of the then-extant fleet of Douglas DC-6 air tankers, it was discovered that their operating conditions were much harsher than those envisioned by the aircraft’s manufacturer. NASA found that ten percent of all observed retardant drops exceeded the maximum G-load the airplane was expected to see in service, with planes pulling 2.0 to 2.4 G’s during climb out on a regular basis. A later study found that approximately one in every 100 retardant drops resulted in a vertical load in excess of 4.0 G’s, well beyond what most planes are required to withstand. Attempting to quantify the severity of this treatment, a Canadian study of Fokker F-27 firefighting planes assessed their operating conditions to be 5.7 times more severe than in normal transport operations. And following the accident, Lockheed conducted an analysis of the effect of this treatment on the C-130, and found that inspection regimes would need to be twelve times more frequent than called for in the applicable military technical orders in order to compensate for the increased abuse suffered during air tanker service.

The aftermath of the crash of Tanker 130. (George Patterson)

Considering the above, H&P’s inspections of the C-130’s wings, which were scheduled every 48 months, actually needed to be performed every four months in order to reliably detect damage in time to prevent catastrophic structural failure. But H&P was not required to undertake the measures that would have been necessary to discover this deficiency in the first place. This was supposed to be the role of a continuing airworthiness program, which the company didn’t have. When the C-130 was in military service, it had something similar called a Depot-level Maintenance Program, which prescribed necessary checks in order to ensure that structural components were performing per expectations. But while the depot-level maintenance program could have detected the damage in time to prevent the crash of Tanker 130, its existence was not specified in any of the applicable military technical orders, and as such H&P wasn’t required to have this program either.

Tanker 130’s battered tail, stained in red. (George Patterson)

Concerns about this lack of safety assurances had been floating about in the industry for more than a decade before the 2002 crashes. In 1993, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Aircraft Services inspected a number of air tankers in Alaska and found that many of them weren’t in compliance even with the military technical orders, and were therefore unairworthy. This discovery prompted the Department of the Interior to raise its concerns with the FAA, suggesting that all C-130 tankers be required to adhere to a standardized FAA-approved maintenance program. The FAA rejected this proposal, prompting the DOI to issue an internal document warning of “less than universal agreement on what constitute[s] required maintenance of C-130A surplus military aircraft.” Later that year, the DOI Director of Program Services sent a memo to the heads of various agencies responsible for public lands, including the Forest Service and the BLM, recommending that the C-130 air tanker fleet be grounded due to an absence of any assurance that they were airworthy. This was the first inkling for anyone in the Forest Service that the planes might not be safe despite holding valid FAA type certificates.

That summer, a meeting took place between the FAA, the US Air Force, the Forest Service, and several operators of C-130 air tankers. On the agenda: whether a continuing airworthiness program for the C-130s should be established. According to meeting minutes, the US Air Force argued that the absence of such a program would lead to accidents, because the depot-level maintenance program (the Air Force’s version of a continuing airworthiness program) was critical to the safety of the aircraft type, and civilian operators were not conducting the inspections that this program prescribed. The C-130 operators pushed back, arguing that these inspections would be too costly, and ultimately no changes to the requirements were made.

The Blue Ribbon Commission Report on the aerial firefighting industry came out in December 2002. (Forest Service/BLM Blue Ribbon Commission)

In the end, this lack of action occurred despite the fact that the body count continued to rack up throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. The Blue Ribbon Commission noted that on average one large US air tanker was lost every single year, out of a fleet numbering no more than 45 airplanes. As a result, 136 air tanker pilots had died in the line of duty between 1958 and 2002, a rate which, if applied to the much more numerous ground-based wildland firefighters, would be equivalent to four firefighter deaths a week, every single week, every single year, year after year. And yet the industry seemed to take it for granted that its abysmal safety record was making “tanker pilot” one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

As a result of these initial findings, the Forest Service grounded all Lockheed C-130 and Consolidated PB4Y–2 air tankers indefinitely. Consequently, Hawkins & Powers Aviation soon went out of business, a casualty of the deficient system which it helped perpetuate.

Further actions followed the publication of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s damning report. In 2004, the Forest Service rescinded all contracts for ex-military air tankers — the entirety of the existing large air tanker fleet — and re-hired only those companies which could meet new safety-related obligations, including the establishment of a continuing airworthiness program. Many companies did not survive the transition, and those which attempted to push back were punished. One aerial firefighting company, Chico-based Aero Union, found this out the hard way when it attempted to haggle the new requirement out of the contract. The FAA ended up issuing an airworthiness directive making it illegal to operate the company’s P-3 Orion tankers without a continuing airworthiness program, and the company went bankrupt shortly afterward.

The Forest Service’s large air tanker fleet size vs. time. (Fire Aviation)

In addition, the Forest Service created a department whose job was to oversee and enforce the use of continuing airworthiness programs; companies cracked down on “cowboy culture” among crews and technicians; and contracts started being offered in five- to ten-year blocks, reducing uncertainty in the industry. It should be noted that these reforms were long overdue: Canada had already had a similar system in place for decades, and its results were apparent long before the US followed suit.

In the short term, these changes created a crisis not just for the aerial firefighting industry, but also for the Forest Service, which saw its available fleet of large air tankers shrink from 44 in 2002 to just nine in 2013, as company after company folded after proving unable to meet the new requirements. But those which survived went on to have much better safety records: in fact, few large air tankers have crashed in the US since the reforms, dramatically reversing the industry’s reputation for danger. And a new generation of tankers has since been born from the ashes, consisting of former passenger jets such as the BAe 146, the McDonnell Douglas MD-87, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and even a Boeing 747. These planes have more robust designs, better documentation, and most of importantly of all, much more rigorous oversight than the antique warbirds which they replaced.

The Boeing 747 “Global Supertanker” in action. (Leggitt Verner)

Despite all of this, aerial firefighting remains, and might always remain, a relatively dangerous line of work. A large part of the deficit caused by the retirement of ex-military air tankers was filled through increased use of much smaller single-engine air tankers, known in the industry as SEATs, which are more maneuverable and can be operated by a single pilot, but are also more dangerous. Although exact data is hard to come by, a typical US fire season sees at least one fatal crash involving a SEAT, and the safety of these planes should probably be called into question. Furthermore, the Forest Service has started to go back to one-year contracts for large air tankers, a move which industry insiders warn could restart the cycle of unsafe practices that previously made the industry so risky from the standpoint of both safety and business.

A memorial to crews of both airplanes in Greybull, Wyoming. (Bill Gabbert)

Looking back 20 years later, the progress which has been made is remarkable, fears of regression notwithstanding. It is all but certain that the deaths of the five airmen in 2002, and the nationwide attention they brought to the problem, resulted in many more lives being saved over the years which followed. And yet they still need not have died, plummeting to earth aboard flaming wrecks with no hope of control, becoming victims of a strange corner of the aviation industry that placed almost no value on human life. The simple fact that firefighting is meant to save lives and property made the risk seem worth it. But it is also true that if Tanker 130 and Tanker 123 had never been deployed to the Cannon and Big Elk Fires, the death toll from those blazes would have been zero. In this way, the loss of two planes and five pilots manifestly was not “worth it.”

Today, a memorial stands by the side of Highway 395 in Walker next to the site where Tanker 130 fell from the sky, honoring the three crewmen who gave their lives that day. Another memorial in Greybull, Wyoming, the former home of Hawkins & Powers, commemorates all five fallen pilots. The memorials serve as a reminder of how far the industry has come, but they also should be considered a warning of the consequences of poor governance and an excessively cost-oriented culture. Sometimes, the stone monuments yearn to say, it pays to spend a little more.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (eventually™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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Admiral Cloudberg

Admiral Cloudberg

Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (eventually™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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