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The Rainmakers

Once a fire starts, these airplanes are the fastest way to slow it down. So why are they endangered?

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In the rugged mountains outside Chico, California, workers swarmed over a sun-baked hillside, filling huge fabric bags with the shattered bits of a Lockheed P-3B: torn aluminum, blackened engines, broken propellers, and tangled wiring. Nearby, a small scuff showed where the airplane’s tail compartment, used to hold sonar equipment when the craft flew for the Navy, had struck. In a few feet, the scuff grew into a long “V” of soil scraped bare. Beyond, charred stubs of manzanita bushes stuck out of the torn earth. And then, a massive pile of wreckage. The warm air smelled of jet fuel and the sage-like aroma of ceanothus shrubs. “It’s like they just fell out of the sky,” says Michael McCart, an insurance adjuster managing the crash recovery for the airplane’s insurer, of the aircraft’s three-man crew.

Five days earlier, at 6:38 p.m. on April 20, Tom Lynch, 41, Brian Bruns, 45, and Paul Cockrell, 52, had taken off in the P-3B from the Chico Municipal Airport. As chief pilot of Aero Union, Lynch was responsible for training the company’s pilots in the demanding art of fighting fires from the air. Aero Union flies aircraft that have been modified to rain retardant on fast-moving blazes, and in preparation for the 2005 fire season, Lynch was evaluating the skills of Bruns and Cockrell. Bruns, who had flown P-3s for the U.S. Navy and still flew them for the Naval Reserve, was at the controls of the 39-year-old aircraft, its tanks filled with 2,550 gallons of water (retardant is not used for training missions). Bruns headed toward a mountain range north of the airport. Once there, the P-3B swooped low over hills and ravines so the crew could release water over the training area. The pilots had already made several practice runs that day, returning to the airport after each flight to refill the P-3B’s tanks. On the final flight of the day, Bruns began maneuvering over the drop zone. A transponder on the aircraft stopped transmitting at 6:50 p.m., and a few minutes later, witnesses called 911 to report seeing a fireball and smoke rising from the mountains.

The Aero Union crash unnerved the small community that fights big fires from the air. Grief over the loss of the pilots, who were known among the crews working for other aerial tanker operations, was mingled with worries that the tankers had simply grown too old and too hazardous to fly. Though the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may take more than a year to discover the accident’s cause, one initial determination has brought a small amount of relief to aerial firefighters: All of the wreckage was found in one 400- by 100-foot footprint. Had the P-3B suffered a structural failure, the aircraft would have come apart in flight, leading to two debris fields on the ground. So despite its age, the tanker probably did not have a structural failure.

Such was the fate two tankers met three years ago. On June 17, 2002, as a 46-year-old Lockheed C-130A tanker was dropping retardant on a fire in Walker, California, its wings folded like a butterfly’s and peeled off. The three crew members were killed in the ensuing crash. A month later, two more firefighters died when their 57-year-old Consolidated-Vultee P4Y-2 lost a wing—also during a retardant delivery, this one in Estes Park, Colorado. Both aircraft were owned and operated by Hawkins & Powers, a longtime aerial firefighting contractor based in Greybull, Wyoming.

The accidents threw the tanker community into turmoil. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service grounded the remaining C-130As and P4Y-2s, then formed a commission to examine tanker safety. The commission’s report, released December 2002, faulted the Forest Service for running aerial firefighting on the cheap, relying on aging aircraft, and not providing the oversight required to keep the flights safe.

A National Transportation Safety Board report, released in April 2004, was equally critical, citing a lack of maintenance standards and insufficient information about whether aircraft retired from the military were suited for firefighting. The NTSB investigations of the Walker and Estes Park accidents revealed that both tankers had fatigue cracks in the wings, flaws that visual inspections of the tankers’ exteriors had not detected.

The NTSB report was the last straw for the Forest Service: On May 10, 2004, it canceled contracts for the heavy tanker fleet, taking 33 aircraft out of fire operations. By mid-summer, though, Aero Union’s P-3 Orions had been cleared to fly after DynCorp Technical Services, an engineering consulting firm, determined that the operational life of an adequately maintained P-3 was 19,000 hours (substantially more than the number of hours each Aero Union P-3 had logged). DynCorp was able to quickly determine an operational life for the P-3 because the craft is still in service with the Navy and data was readily available. (Since the P2V Neptune is no longer employed by the U.S. military, figuring out the number of hours that the type could be safely flown would take longer.)

Devastated by the 2002 crashes and the loss of fire contracts, Hawkins & Powers abandoned the business of flying tankers. Neptune Aviation, based in Missoula, Montana, and Minden Aviation of Nevada scraped by with one P2V each (the airplanes were cleared to fly because they were wired to collect information on the stresses they endured in flight). And Butler Aviation, an Oregon company that flies three DC-7s, made up for the loss of federal contracts by securing work with the state of Oregon.

Within two years of the Walker and Estes Park crashes, the heavy tanker fleet had fallen from more than 40 to only a handful. That alarmed many in the fire business, who have seen summer fires grow increasingly aggressive in recent years. As it turned out, despite an early drought and the potential for a severe fire season, the summer of 2004 saw few fires, and, outside Alaska, the United States had one of the mildest fire seasons in years.

Still, the question remains: Are heavy tankers really necessary to fight fires? Certainly, other aircraft can do the job. Smaller, single-engine tankers, such as the Air Tractor AT-802F, which can carry 800 gallons of retardant, are becoming increasingly popular. And then there are helitankers, some of which can drop up to 2,000 gallons of retardant. Helicopters, however, are maintenance-intensive, and even more costly to operate than big aircraft; in many cases, they must work from refueling bases that need to be established near a fire. As for single-engine tankers, they lack the range of their multi-engine brethren, and their smaller payloads don’t offer the impact of a 3,000-gallon dousing.

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