Investigator scours site of Utah air tanker crash

A P2-V air tanker drops retardant on a wildfire southwest of Elko, Nev., from an earlier fire season. A P2-V Neptune air tanker dropping retardant on a remote wildfire along the Utah-Nevada line crashed Sunday, killing both crew members. The pilots were flying a P-2V air tanker that is owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont. Enlarge photo

Ross Andreson/Elko Daily Free Press, Associated Pr

A P2-V air tanker drops retardant on a wildfire southwest of Elko, Nev., from an earlier fire season. A P2-V Neptune air tanker dropping retardant on a remote wildfire along the Utah-Nevada line crashed Sunday, killing both crew members. The pilots were flying a P-2V air tanker that is owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont.

SALT LAKE CITY – Federal investigators said Tuesday mechanical failure forced an air tanker fighting a Nevada wildfire to make a crash landing, but they were still trying to determine what brought down another tanker of the same vintage in southern Utah, killing two pilots.

Both accidents happened Sunday, and a National Transportation Safety Board investigator was at the scene of the remote Utah crash Tuesday, trying to determine what went wrong.

The company that owns the Lockheed P-2V said it believes a cockpit voice recorder survived the wreck and could yield clues to the plane’s emergency before it went down.

Investigators also will interview the pilot of the tanker’s “spotter” plane, the smaller aircraft assigned to guide the tanker as it dropped retardant, U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said.

The P-2V was once a Cold War-era submarine attack plane, but for years it has been a mainstay of the nation’s aerial firefighting arsenal.

At a news conference Tuesday in Albuquerque, Tidwell acknowledged the need to modernize the country’s firefighting fleet and said the Forest Service was asking contractors to upgrade to a more modern plane.

He added officials will “have to wait and see” what comes out of the investigation. But for now, “we wouldn’t be flying these aircraft if we didn’t think they were safe,” Tidwell said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, countered that the agency needs to act – and fast.

“These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet,” Tester wrote Tidwell in a letter released Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement.”

Two pilots were killed in the Utah crash – Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho – but no one was hurt when the other P-2V was forced to make a crash landing at Nevada’s Minden-Tahoe Airport.

Video of the crash landing shows the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across a runway. NTSB investigator Kurt Anderson said bay doors for the aircraft’s left-side landing gear failed to open.

“The gear tried to extend, but the doors wouldn’t let it,” Anderson told The Associated Press.

Tidwell said Tuesday the company that owned the plane that crashed in Utah has a “stellar track record.” Montana-based Neptune Aviation says its fleet flew 2,600 hours last year without an accident.

The tanker that crashed 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. The other P-2V was owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev.