NTSB report on the crash of Tanker 11

Air Tanker 45

Air Tanker 45, similar to Tanker 11, on final to drop on the Whoopup Fire near the South Dakota/Wyoming state line in 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The National Transportation Safety Board probable cause report on the June 3, 2012 crash of Tanker 11 concluded that while preparing to drop retardant on the White Rock fire near the Utah/Nevada state line, the flight crewmembers “did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering”. The aircraft impacted the ground before it reached the location for the intended drop, causing the death of pilots Todd Tompkins and Ron Chambless.

A photographer got some pictures of the tanker as it was attempting to make the drop (below). It is likely that the pilots jettisoned the retardant when it became obvious they were too low.

tanker 11 crash

Tanker 11 before the crash. Photo from NTSB.

The P2V, operated by Neptune Aviation, was about to make its second drop on the fire that day. Shortly before the crash it made a dry run over the target area, then when lining up for the drop on the next pass took a different path, which was lower, and made a wider right turn, according to the report.

T11 flight pathThe same day that Tanker 11 crashed, another P2V, Tanker 55 operated by Minden, had a mechanical failure and landed at Minden, Nevada with a main landing gear not fully extended. The aircraft was heavily damaged, but there were no serious injuries. The landing was recorded on video.

In June of this year Tanker 48, another Minden P2V, landed with a collapsed nose gear. Thankfully there were no reported injuries.

We covered the 2012 accidents on Wildfire Today (before Fire Aviation was created).

On June 26, 2010 air tanker 44, a P2V operated by Neptune Aviation also experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado (map). Both pilots self-evacuated and were walking around when the fire apparatus arrived to put out a fire in one of the engines. Neptune repaired the aircraft and put it back into service.

The NTSB released a nine-page Factual Report on the crash of Tanker 11. Below is the complete text of the one-page probable cause report, released September 24, 2014:


14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Sunday, June 03, 2012 in Modena, UT
Probable Cause Approval Date: 09/24/2014
Aircraft: LOCKHEED P2V-7, registration: N14447
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

Tanker 11 departed the tanker base to conduct its second fire retardant drop of the day in the same location. Upon arriving in the fire traffic area, Tanker 11 followed the lead airplane into the drop zone, which was located in a shallow valley 0.4 mile wide and 350 feet deep. The lead airplane flew a shallow right turn onto final and then dropped to an altitude of 150 feet above the valley floor while approaching the intended drop zone. While making the right turn onto final behind the lead airplane, Tanker 11’s right wing tip collided with terrain, which resulted in a rapid right yaw and subsequent impact with terrain. The wreckage created a 1,088-foot-long debris field, and a postimpact fire ensued.

Two witnesses took photographs of the accident sequence photos, and an examination of these photographs showed that the lead airplane was positioned ahead of the tanker throughout the flight; however, the orientation of the lead airplane compared to the orientation of Tanker 11 indicated that Tanker 11 did not directly follow the lead airplane’s path to the final drop course. Rather, it was about 700 feet left of the lead airplane’s path and made a wider right turn as it attempted to align with the final drop course. The accident flight crewmembers had previously flown nearly the same exact drop and the lead pilot cautioned them about tailwind conditions during the flight; however, the wider turn suggests that they did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering. In addition, the previous flight was conducted at an altitude above the ridgeline. GPS evidence indicates that the accident flight was conducted below the ridgeline, which would have made it more difficult to detect the rising terrain during the wider turn. A review of the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder audio information revealed that the flight crew did not recognize or attempt to correct the reduced clearance between Tanker 11 and the rising terrain until about 2 seconds before impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

  • The flight crew’s misjudgment of terrain clearance while maneuvering for an aerial application run, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain. Contributing to the accident was the flight crew’s failure to follow the lead airplane’s track and to effectively compensate for the tailwind condition while maneuvering.



A look back at the “air tanker crisis”

A month after two Korean War vintage P2V air tankers crashed on the same day in June, 2012 killing two people, the Society of American Foresters magazine published an article about the state of the U.S. air tanker fleet. At that time there were only 9 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in the United States, down from 44 in 2012. Eight days after those fatalities the U.S. Forest Service issued contracts for approximately seven air tankers that were built in the 1980s and 1990s. The agency is expected to issue another similar contract for an unknown number of retired airliners in 2015. Earlier this month a bill passed in Congress that earmarked $65 million, apparently for the USFS to purchase one new aircraft to be converted into an air tanker.

Below is a piece we had on Wildfire Today, July 17, 2012, about an article in the magazine of the Society of American Foresters. Since it was published, most of the recently contracted “next-generation” air tankers have served admirably, and a couple of them are spending the North American winter on contracts in Australia during the down under summer fire season. However, there have been hiccups, which is not unexpected when placing a new tank design in a jet airliner that had not previously been used to drop retardant on forest fires.


P2V on the Whoopup fire

A P2V over the Whoopup Fire, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We were recently interviewed by Steve Wilent who wrote an article about what we are calling the air tanker crisis for The Forestry Source, a publication of the Society of American Foresters. The article is reprinted here with their permission.


From the July 2012 edition of The Forestry Source. © 2012, The Society of American Foresters (www.eforester.org)

Forest Service Bolsters Airtanker Fleet After Two Crashes

By Steve Wilent, Editor, The Forestry Source

As massive wildfires burning in the Southwest made for an ominous beginning to the 2012 fire season, two airtankers crashed in June, leaving two crew members dead and underscoring warnings about the safety of the US Forest Service’s aging and depleted fleet. Both aircraft were 50-year-old Lockheed P2Vs originally designed for US military anti-submarine patrols. With the crashes, the agency had just 9 large airtankers under contract, down from a fleet of 44 in 2002.

The two firefighters died in the same June 3 crash in western Utah when their P2V veered off course and slammed into mountainous terrain, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report. The second accident occurred on the same day near Reno, Nevada, when another P2V crash-landed after its landing gear failed to deploy.

“The pilots of Tanker 11 lost their lives protecting public safety and natural resources,” said Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service. “As the entire fire and aviation community grieves their loss, we must ensure that we maintain our capability to fulfill our responsibilities to be prepared to respond vigorously to wildfires threatening people, communities, infrastructure, and natural and cultural resources.”

On June 11, the agency announced the addition of eight aircraft to the fleet, including one DC-10, and said it would arrange for 5 additional large helicopters to be activated earlier than scheduled. On June 13, President Obama signed a bill, rushed through Congress after the two crashes, that waives certain Forest Service airtanker contracting requirements, allowing the agency to speed up issuing contracts for “next generation” aircraft.

Even before the crashes, critics called for strengthening of the agency’s weakened airtanker fleet.

“With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 airtankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFS’s current airtanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season,” wrote Colorado Sen. Mark Udall in an April 12 letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

Such concerns are not new. Following the crashes of two airtankers in 2002—one of which was filmed by a television news crew as its wings broke off in mid-air—the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to assess the federal wildfire aviation program. Among its eight major findings, the panel determined that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report is available on the Source Extras page, www.safnet.org/members/archive/source_extras.cfm.

Since then, more-stringent safety requirements and inspections have led to many aircraft being deemed less than airworthy, a key factor in the reduction in the fleet’s numbers.

In February, the Forest Service released a “Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” (www.fs.fed.us/fire/aviation/) that recommended contracting for 18 to 28 “next generation” large airtankers that are more reliable, faster, and can carry more retardant than the “legacy” airtankers.

2002 Report Still Valid

Former Texas state forester Jim Hull, now retired, was co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel.

“The report that we did nearly a decade ago is just as valid today as it was back then,” Hull said in a June interview. “There has been a continuous cycle of trying to use the old, worn-out military planes, and we’ve been doing this now for over 50 years. At some point, somebody’s got to wake up and realize that we’ve got to do something different.”

However, Hull cautions against assuming that the age of the aircraft had anything to do with the two crashes in June, pending a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“It seems to me that one of our findings seems to be continually overlooked,” Hull said. “And that is the fact that no one in Congress or the administrations since then, whichever party has been in power, has seemed inclined to wake up to the fact that this is a national issue. It’s not a Forest Service or BLM issue, it’s a national issue—it’s going to take national leadership to provide adequate aerial firefighting capability for the nation. You can’t blame the agencies. I think they’re probably doing the best that they can possibly do with the funds that they have. Until the leadership of the nation is willing to mandate [the establishment of a modern airtanker fleet] and the funding to go with it, I don’t see any way that were going to resolve this problem.”

Bill Gabbert, former executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire and editor of the Wildfire Today web site (wildfiretoday.com), said the Forest Service bears the responsibility for the state of the airtanker fleet.

“Since the fatal crashes in 2002, the Forest Service just hasn’t stepped up to the plate to make any decisions,” Gabbert said. “They have not shown any leadership on how to rebuild the fleet. They have managed the problem strictly in a negative sense, by banning certain types of aircraft from the fleet, but they haven’t done anything to encourage or make it easier for the private contractors to add to their fleets. It’s extremely difficult under the current procedures for a private vendor to buy an aircraft and pay to have it retrofitted as an airtanker.”

A key factor, Gabbert said, is that a contractor seeking a loan to buy and retrofit an aircraft can’t show a bank that it will receive enough income to justify the loan.

“There’s no guarantee that a contractor will receive a certain amount of income, even if they do get a contract for an aircraft. They don’t know how much they will fly or how much they will make. They don’t know if the aircraft will pass tests by the Inter-Agency Airtanker Board. There are just too many unknowns. There are just too many unknowns,” said Gabbert.

The solution, said Gabbert, is for the agency to purchase its own airtankers.

“I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that about the only way to ensure that we rebuild the fleet with safe aircraft is for the Forest Service to come up with a specific proposal, not one full of generalities like they did a few months ago [with the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy],” he said. “They need to submit a specific, detailed proposal to Congress to ask for money to buy brand-new aircraft, including funding to retrofit them as airtankers. Brand-new, state-of-the-art, safe aircraft. And then they should issue contracts to private contractors to fly and maintain those airtankers. If we don’t do that, then we are just going to get more old, discarded aircraft.”


The military assists with firefighting in 2014

coco fire marine helicopter

Marines assist in efforts to contain the Coco Fire in San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpt. Tyler C. Gregory.

The Department of Defense included these photos in a collection of images that look back on 2014.

marine helicopter wildfire

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter prepares to release water from a Bambi bucket to help fight wildfires on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, May 16, 2014. The fires burned more than 6,000 acres. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tabitha Castellano.

national guard helicopter wildfire

Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Noel Larson and Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nick Gliem line up their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to help fight wildfires near Leavenworth, Washington, July 31, 2014. Washington National Guard photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dave Goodhue.


Montana rancher integrates helicopter into his operation

Gathering cattle with a helicopter

Gathering cattle with a helicopter in Montana. Photo by Kari Greer.

This is not a fire aviation story, but it involves a Bell 206-L4 and a photographer who is well known in the wildland fire community.

Vertical Magazine has an interesting article about a Montana rancher who flies a helicopter as part of his regular ranch activities, at times doing things that would normally be done by a cowboy on a horse. One of the best things about the article is that it has 14 photos taken by Kari Greer who spends her summers on the fireline with firefighters, taking great photos. Examples of her work can be found at Wildfire Today.

Here is how the article begins:

Loretta Lynn once sang, “There’s a built-in troublemaker in every man.” That may or may not be true. But there is undeniably a built-in troublemaker in every cow, and on this bluebird May day in west-central Montana, the troublemaker is acting up in the black heifer who is darting in and out of view through the chin bubble in Bill Galt’s Bell 206L4 LongRanger helicopter.

I’m riding along in the left seat; Galt is in the right, using his L4 to urge a dozen cow-calf pairs toward a crossing of swampy, overgrown Birch Creek. Or trying to. Every time Galt gets the bunch moving in the right direction, the unruly “dry” heifer, who doesn’t have a calf to slow her down, leads them off in a wrong one. Thirty feet above the ground, Galt is doing his best to head her off, maneuvering the LongRanger back and forth like a particularly quick and nimble cowhorse. Reinforcements soon arrive in the form of Galt’s nephew’s wife, Tanya Hill, on an actual horse, but the heifer only redoubles her efforts to evade us…


Congress appropriated $65M for the air tanker fleet — now what?


Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J

The omnibus federal appropriations bill that was just passed by Congress included a provision to allocate $65 million for the U. S. Forest Service air tanker fleet.


…for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such aircraft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National Forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the Forest Service…

Over a couple of days we attempted to find out what, exactly, the Forest Service is going to do with this $65 million that is now burning a hole in their pockets. We checked with the agency last week after the House approved the bill and were at first told they would not discuss it until the bill passed. Then the Senate approved it on Saturday, December 13 and the President said he would sign it this week. In response to our inquiry, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said on December 14:

We are continuing to work towards bringing 18 to 28 modern airtankers into service as outlined in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy we submitted to Congress in 2012. If this bill passes and is signed into law we will use the funding to further those efforts and we will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out.

To summarize, the official word is, the Forest Service says they don’t know how they will spend the 65 million in taxpayer dollars. This would tend to indicate, if true, that the request to place the provision in the appropriations bill came from somewhere other than the agency or the administration. That leaves congressmen and senators.

We began checking with the usual suspects, the Senators who have been vocal over the last two years about rebuilding the atrophied air tanker fleet. No one in the offices of John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, or Lisa Murkowski wanted to take credit for the proposal. Next we called the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and struck pay dirt in the House.

Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert from California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said, “supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.”

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, Jennifer Hing, had a similar response, saying, “The funding is for the acquisition/purchase of new aircraft.”

If it is actually true, that the Forest Service will buy one or more new aircraft to serve as air tankers, it will be the first time in 40 to 50 years, if ever. Historically since the 1960s anyway, they have contracted with private companies to supply and operate air tankers and have not owned outright any, to our knowledge. This was known as a Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated (CO/CO) system and was the paradigm until seven used C-130Hs were “given” to the Forest Service by the Coast Guard earlier this year. They are undergoing maintenance and retrofitting by the Air Force, and are expected to begin entering the USFS fleet in Fiscal Year 2018. The aircraft will be Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO).  A joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. This is probably a wise decision since the Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics.

What kind of new, next-generation air tanker will $65 million buy?

It would probably buy a couple of Russian designed Be-200s. They might even be made by a Colorado company, although who knows if the aircraft will ever be certified to operate in the United States.

In FY 2015 the Defense Department expects to pay $88.9 million for each C-130J. However, Lockheed Martin has started selling a less expensive civilian version, the LM-100J, which will be priced at around $65 million. Coincidence? Well, keep in mind that Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $380,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

If the Forest Service and their Inspector General’s Office have the balls to buy an aircraft at the request of a lobbyist who was the former boss of the Chief of the Forest Service, then the agency might end up with a brand new LM-100J.

Maybe Mr. Rey will autograph it as it rolls off the factory floor in Marietta, Georgia.

What are your thoughts about how the Forest Service should spend their $65 million, which according to the legislation is supposed to go toward “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation air tanker fleet”.


Inventec’s enclosed water bucket system

Inventec water bucket

Inventec has developed a water carrying device for firefighting helicopters that, unlike conventional buckets, is completely enclosed. In addition to filling quickly, 1,000 liters (265 gallons) in four to five seconds, the company says no water will escape even if the helicopter travels at high speed. It can be filled from a water source that is only 10 to 12 inches deep.

The device can be strategically located on the ground separate from the helicopter so that firefighters can fill bladder bags from it or use it on a hose lay if it can be positioned at the top of a hill, taking advantage of gravity flow.

Inventec water bucket on ground


Large air tankers in Australia drop on their first fire

Conair's RJ-85

Conair’s RJ-85 returns from making its first retardant drop on a fire in Victoria, Australia December 16. Photo by Michael Austin.

The two large air tankers that are on contract in Victoria, Australia made their first down under retardant drops on a fire December 16. Conair’s RJ-85 and Coulson’s C-130Q each made one drop on a wildfire near the town of Wodonga in northeast Victoria, with both of them putting about an hour and a quarter on their hours meter. These photos were taken by Micheal Austin as the retardant-stained aircraft were returning and landing at Avalon.

The photo of the RJ-85 above shows a retardant stain coming from what appears to be a small orifice high up on the rear section of the bolt-on tank, which could be some sort of overflow function. (Click on the photos to see larger versions.)

The Border Mail has some fascinating photos of the fire, including many shots with lightning in the background.

Coulson's C-130Q

Coulson’s C-130Q returns from making its first retardant drop on a fire in Victoria, Australia, December 16. Photo by Michael Austin.

As we reported earlier, at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday the two air tankers and seven other firefighting aircraft were formally introduced to the Australian media. Both the RJ-85 and the C-130 made demonstration drops with water. A few hours later in the early afternoon they were dispatched to the fire near Wodonga.

Below is an excerpt from ABC, reporting on the introduction of the large air tankers:

…Two Canadian water bombing aircraft doing a practice run for the media at Avalon Airport were called in to help fight the blaze.

The Hercules and RJ tankers can hold more than 12,000 litres of water or fire retardant, which is almost double the capacity of the largest water bombers used last year.

Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the two tankers would be crucial to firefighting this summer because they can fly longer distances.

“They’ll be based at Avalon but they can reach either ends of the state,” he said.

“[They can go] over to Mallacoota or across into the far south-west in around 30 minutes, so their flying time is quite significant.”

Conair's RJ-85

Conair’s RJ-85 makes a demonstration drop at the Avalon airport, December 16, 2014 in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Michael Austin.

Conair is in partnership with the Australian company Field Air in making the RJ-85 aircraft available in Australia. They have launched a Facebook page dedicated to the RJ-85 in Australia, and posted a video that details the development of the air tanker.