In the discussion among our readers about the memorial to the three-person crew of Air Tanker 130 that was killed in a crash in 2002 near Walker, California, the subject of another crash the same year came up. Tanker 123, a P4Y-2 Privateer, crashed while maneuvering over a fire near Estes Park, Colorado. Both pilots, Ricky Schwartz and Milt Stollak were killed. All five of the pilots are listed on a memorial at the Greybull, Wyoming airport, but in the article’s comments someone asked if there was a memorial related to the Estes Park crash somewhere in Colorado, and we asked for photos if anyone found the site. Helpful answers provided enough information for Eric to find it recently who took the photos below. Thanks Eric.
As requested, here are a couple pictures of the Tanker 123 Memorial, which also includes Gordon Knight, who was also killed on the Big Elk Meadows fire, 7/30/02, when his helo went down during firefighting operations. I’d forgotten that one…so 3 pilots lost on one fire in two separate incidents.
The memorial is located in the driveway of the Big Elk Meadows VFD, at 42 Willow Road, Lyons, CO. It’s off CR 47, off US 36 Hwy. Big Elk Meadows is a private subdivision, but no one seemed concerned that I was there looking at the memorial – I assume it’s there to be seen. It’s about a 30 minute round trip off US 36 to drive up and see it.
KOLO TV has a very nice four-minute video tribute to the crew that was killed June 17, 2002 when their C-130A air tanker, Tanker 130, crashed while fighting a wildfire near Walker, California killing all three on board. It includes a short interview conducted minutes before the accident with Steve Wass, one of the pilots. The other two crew members were Craig LaBare and Mike Davis. The video has the well-known footage of the wings falling off the air tanker as it crashed just after making a drop.
The NTSB determined that the cause of both crashes was in‑flight structural failure due to fatigue cracking in the wings, and that maintenance procedures had been inadequate to detect the cracking.
These accidents changed aerial firefighting. The Forest Service banned certain models of old war birds and developed new contract specifications regarding inspections and stress monitoring. During the next ten years the large air tanker fleet atrophied, shrinking from 44 on exclusive use contracts in 2002 to 9 in 2012. Not much was done to restore the program until eight days after two pilots were killed in crashes of two P2V air tankers on the same day in 2012 — the Forest Service issued contracts for seven “next generation” air tankers manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s, taking a small step toward partially rebuilding the fleet. As the fire season began in 2018, 13 large air tankers were on federal exclusive use contracts.