Pilot Error Likely Cause of P-3 crash

The NTSB is not expected to release its findings for several months on the cause of the deadly crash during a training mission.

Pilot error likely caused a P-3 aerial firefighting plane crash rather than mid-air failure that claimed other aging types of now-grounded U.S. air tankers, clearing a cloud over Americas remaining mainstay of big tankers.

That was the conclusion of industry experts, pilots, accident investigators and an aviation consulting firm, commissioned by this newspaper to review the National Transportation Safety Boards recent report of facts on the crash April 20, 2005, nearChico, 150 miles northeast of the Bay Area.

The NTSB is not expected to release its findings for several months on the cause of the deadly crash during a training mission.

By then the potentially explosive fire season facing the U.S. Forest Services contracted P-3 fleet in California and much of the West will be over. The big red and white, four-engine turboprop planes are scrambled almost daily to fight wildfires.

Virginia-based JM Associates, a private aviation-consulting firm hired to study the NTSB factual report, concluded the crash apparently occurred due to CFIT, or controlled flight into terrain.

Prior to the accident the aircraft was flight worthy and there were no identifiable mechanical malfunctions or catastrophic failures contributing to the crash, said James Munsterman of JM Associates, in a paid analysis of the NTSBs factual report.

An industry expert, as well as a veteran pilot and crash investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed with Munsterman.

In this type of crash, you know pretty much what happened but you dont know why and you never will, said the pilot-investigator. Once youve ruled out structural and mechanical failure, it becomes a category of accident the NTSB calls controlled flight into terrain.

We dont like to use the designation pilot error, but its the ultimate pilot error, he said.

Federal officials and representatives of the P-3s owner-operator, Aero Union Corp. of Chico, declined comment.

Though they sometimes share firefighting assignments, the federally contracted fleet is in no way connected with the twin-turboprop S-2s that are owned by the California Department of Forestry.

An official declaration of pilot error would leave Aero Unions good mechanical safety record intact. But survivors -- self-described tanker widows -- dont want to hear the common industry pronouncement of pilot error.

No one will ever know which of three victims -- Brian Bruns of Minden, Nev.; Paul Cockrell of Fresno; or Tom Lynch of Redding -- was flying the P-3.

Aero Union is a family, said Terry Unsworth, president of Aero Union. We all feel the tragedy still.

The NTSB used a Navy radar analysis to show the aircraft -- operating at the usual retardant drop altitude of just hundreds of feet above ground -- flew up the middle of a valley. But then it drifted toward rising terrain on the east side.

There were no distress calls, and air tankers are in a class of aircraft not equipped with flight data or cockpit voice recorders.

Munsterman said that based on ones experience, you could develop a number of theories about what contributed to this accident, but that would be mere speculation.

Training missions aboard the crashed plane were so realistic and rigorous that on one of Tanker 26s previous nine flights of the day, one of the pilots faked a heart attack to create an emergency situation in which the co-pilot took over, according to the NTSB factual report.

JM Associates and sources noted that the aircraft seemed to be intact when it crashed, a conclusion drawn from the small debris field.

They said the NTSB factual report also cited bent propellers and recovered gauges as among signs showing the engines were operating properly. Control surfaces also were in proper position for a retardant-bombing pass at an altitude of down to 150 feet over rugged terrain.

The weather was clear. Sunlight at 6:50 p.m., an hour before the sun set, is not believed to have been a problem.

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