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Todd Neal Tompkins And Ronnie Edwin Chambless, Pilots, Die In Firefighting Plane Over Utah-Nevada

BRIAN SKOLOFF and SCOTT SONNER   06/04/12 09:36 PM ET  AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Once a Cold War-era submarine attack plane, the Lockheed P2V has for years been both a mainstay of the nation's aerial firefighting arsenal and a cause for concern.

Flying in the turbulent, unforgiving skies above raging wildfires, the planes have crashed at least seven times from either mechanical problems or pilot error, causing 16 deaths, dating back to 1990 when they were slowly added to the nation's firefighting fleet.

The latest crash in Utah that killed two pilots and a crash-landing by another one of the same planes in Nevada, both on Sunday, have renewed calls for the federal government to speed up efforts to modernize the nation's firefighting aircraft fleet used to drop fire retardant.

All of it, just as the busiest part of the wildfire season begins in the West.

"As the air tanker fleet continues to atrophy, it's going to reduce the country's ability to get there early, which is why so many of these fires mushroom," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Forestry Subcommittee, said Monday.

Wyden led a push in March by a group of senators from the West to get the U.S. Forest Service to bring newer planes into service.

On Sunday, a tanker went down in western Utah as crews battled a lightning-sparked wildfire that jumped the Nevada border about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said Monday it appeared a wing tip hit the ground in a rocky canyon. The plane practically disintegrated, leaving a 600-yard debris field, he said.

Authorities said ground crews tried to keep the fire from overwhelming the wreckage to give officials enough time to confirm the pilots had died, but flames soon swept through. The men's bodies were eventually recovered later in the day.

By Monday, the fire had grown to 8,000 acres with 15 percent containment, authorities said. Crews didn't expect full containment until Sunday.

The weekend weather was windy and hot, creating "explosive fire conditions," said Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service's fire and aviation operations director. The terrain is rolling hills with pine, juniper and cheat grass, a thin wispy weed that carries fire quickly.

The plane, owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont., was built in 1962, according to federal aviation records, but had been modified to fight fires and was among only a handful of air tankers available nationwide.

Another P2V, this one owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev., was fighting a wildfire south of Reno on Sunday. Its crash-landing at Minden-Tahoe Airport was captured on video, with the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across the runway. No one was injured.

The government previously had relied primarily on C-130 cargo planes for firefighting efforts but started slowly adding P2Vs to the fleet in the early 1990s, then began relying much more on the planes after two C-130 crashes in 2002.

The number of large firefighting aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004, when the Forest Service grounded 33 air tankers after a number of high-profile crashes. Two of those involved the wings falling off the aircraft as they were fighting fires.

That left 11 tankers at the start of this year to mount aerial assaults on wildfires. Among those were nine P2Vs like the one that crashed over the weekend in Utah. A DC-10 and a BAE-146 make up the rest of the fleet.

"They are aging, and we know we need to replace them," Harbour said. "That's why the chief (of the Forest Service) sent Congress an air tanker strategy a couple months ago that said we needed to modernize the fleet."

Harbour said the agency has concluded that the nation needs up to 28 of the next generation of air tankers, those that can fly faster and carry more retardant. Overall, the Forest Service budgets $70 million a year on firefighting aircraft out of $2 billion overall fighting wildfires. Bids are being evaluated on the next generation planes, but the service currently pays $10,000 a day and $6,000 per hour of flight time for exclusive-use contracts.

However, replacing the aging fleet will not happen quickly, Harbour added. A contract for three air tankers will be awarded later this month, and four more will be added next year, he said.

The Forest Service also hires hundreds of helicopters, which drop water on hotspots within a fire, and dozens of smaller single-engine crop-dusters converted to carry retardant, which are largely used on range fires.

The service doesn't own any of the firefighting aircraft, but instead contracts with private companies like Minden and Neptune, whose fleet is made up largely of the P2Vs.

A review of firefighting plane crashes over the last two decades found that various models of the P2V aircraft had been involved in at least seven fatal crashes while fighting wildfires, including the one that crashed on Sunday.

Neptune Aviation, which owns five of those planes, reported several hydraulics failures on their P2Vs, one that led to an emergency landing in Montana in April. Another one was taken out of service in February after workers found a crack in the wing support.

Neptune released a statement Monday afternoon that said it would not comment on accident specifics, but noted the aircraft "made contact with the ground while flying in the active fire drop zone."

The company temporarily grounded its fleet to debrief crewmembers and mechanics, but all of the company's air tankers have been returned to active duty, the statement said.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Van McKenny arrived in the area Sunday night and spent the day Monday interviewing witnesses, but he hadn't yet been to the crash site.

He said a team of investigators was assisting in the probe, including from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Interior Department.

Authorities will be looking into all potential causes of the crash, including weather, mechanical failure and pilot error.

McKenny said he planned to visit the crash site Tuesday to document the wreckage.

"It will all really depend on what we see, evidence on the ground," he said.

Authorities identified the pilots as Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho.

Tompkins' wife Cassandra Cannon said her husband had flown air tankers for 17 years and believed the work he did was meaningful and impacted the safety of others. She said Tompkins was dispatched to the wildfire Sunday and immediately began flyovers.

___

Associated Press writer Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., and Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report. Sonner reported from Reno, Nev., and Skoloff from Salt Lake City.



View photos from the New Mexico wildfire below:
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  • In this Tuesday, May 29, 2012 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, a firefighter walks along a burn out line as part of an effort to contain the nation's largest wildfire in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze that has charred 340 square miles, or 218,000 acres, of terrain in the rugged mountains and canyons of southwestern New Mexico. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Mark Pater)

  • This Tuesday, May 22, 2012, photo, provided by David Thornburg shows a plume of smoke rising from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire managers said the blaze had charred more than 10,000 acres before merging Wednesday afternoon with the nearby 11,500-acre Baldy fire. Both fires were sparked by lightning. (AP Photo/David Thornburg)

  • This May 29, 2012 photo provided by the US Forest Service Gila National Forest shows the massive blaze in the Gila National Forest, seen from Neighbors Mountain directly east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire officials said Wednesday May 30, 2012 the wildfire has burned more than 265 square miles has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/US Forest Service)

  • This image provided by NASA shows smoke from New Mexico wildfires drifting across the southcentral United States. The image was acquired Thursday May 24, 2012 by NASA's MODIS satellite Aqua. Firefighters are battling a massive wildfire in southwestern New Mexico that has destroyed a dozen cabins and spread smoke across the state, prompting holiday weekend air-quality warnings. The fire burned early Saturday through remote and rugged terrain around the Gila Wilderness and has grown to 85,000 acres or more than 130 square miles. Fire officials say nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds. (AP Photo/NASA)

  • In this May 22, 2012 file photo provided by David Thornburg, a plume of smoke rises from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire officials confirmed Wednesday, May 30, 2012, that the massive wildfire, which has burned more than 265 square miles in the Gila National Forest, has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/David Thornburg, File)

  • This photo provided by InciWeb Incident Information System shows the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in Mogollon, N.M., a privately owned ghost town which was ordered to evacuate. Fire officials in New Mexico said Saturday, May 26, 2012, that the blaze has shrunk slightly to 82,000 acres but is still 0 percent contained because of weather conditions. (AP Photo/InciWeb Incident Information System)

  • Firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz., cut a fire line along a mountain ridge outside Mogollon, N.M., on Saturday, June 2, 2012. The crew is part of an effort to manage and contain the Whitewater-Baldy fire which has burned more than 354 square miles of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Tara Ross)

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Filed by Joanna Zelman  |