Air Tanker Crash in California Kills 3

Updated: 04-21-2005 09:10:45 PM


COHASSET, Calif. (AP) -- An air tanker typically used to drop retardant during wildfires crashed during a training flight in a remote forest, killing all three on board, federal officials said.

The cause of the crash was under investigation, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Donn Walker.

The plane, a P-3 Orion tanker, went down Wednesday evening in a rugged area of the Lassen National Forest, about 30 miles northeast of Chico in north-central California.

The steep terrain prevented a rescue helicopter from landing at the crash site, forcing search-and-rescue teams to cut their own path through the woods for at least two miles, forest spokeswoman Leona Rodreick said.

The crash caused a fire that burned over two acres by Thursday, and a helicopter and 20 firefighters worked to contain the blaze, officials said.

Rodreick confirmed the deaths but declined to release the victims' names, pending notification of relatives. Aero Union, the Chico-based company that owns the plane, also declined to release the names.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash, which followed a fire retardant training drop, the safety board said.

The plane had taken seven flights Wednesday as pilots who planned to work during the upcoming fire season underwent qualification checks, the safety board said.

There were no distress calls from the experienced crew, said Terry Unsworth, Aero Union's chief executive. ''We have no idea what happened,'' Unsworth said.

The plane, built in 1966 and once operated by the Navy, was not under contract with any government agency at the time of the crash, Rodreick said. Unsworth said it was to be under federal contract this summer.

Large air tankers are being returned to service in the federal firefighting fleet after 33 were grounded last May over concerns about their safety. It was not immediately known if the tanker that crashed was one of the 33.

Two tankers broke up in the air while dropping fire retardant in 2002. Aero Union had fought the grounding last spring, arguing that it was unfairly punished for the problems of the Wyoming company that operated those planes, Hawkins & Powers Aviation.

An Associated Press investigation found Hawkins & Powers had a long history of crashes and safety problems. Air tanker pilots, industry experts and a government inspector said Aero Union maintained high standards while competing for government low-bid contracts.

One of Aero Union's air tankers collided with a Forest Service plane a decade ago as both prepared to land at a Ramona airport after fighting a fire in a state park.