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.
Tests showed the crew had been healthy and was not under the influence of drugs.
One of the trainees aboard Tanker 26 said he was not comfortable with low-altitude work, according to the NTSB factual report.
The veteran P-3 pilot-crash investigator responded that if you show me someone whos comfortable in the firefighting environment, Ill show you somebody whos an accident waiting to happen.
U.S. officials, asked to respond to JM Associates report and statements by sources, declined further comment as they await the NTSBs official declaration of probable cause.
Representatives of Aero Union, a defense contractor for several nations, followed suit, except to again cite their emphasis on safety. They also said refurbished, military-surplus P-3s are tough, swift and particularly suited to firefighting.
Immediately after the crash, federal officials asserted that the former Navy anti-submarine warfare plane did not crash due to structural failure and Aero Union pointed to its excellent maintenance record.
The swift declaration of no structural failure from top U.S. officials at a news conference was unusual and, within weeks, was dismissed by NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm, who said nothing had been ruled out in the crash probe.
But the high-profile news conference, meanwhile, had sidestepped the potential grounding of other P-3s while awaiting NTSB findings. P-3s, supplied solely by Aero Union, constitute about half the Forest Services remaining heavy tanker fleet.
The Forest Service had already suffered permanent grounding of other big military-surplus planes -- converted to air tankers -- after mid-air breakups pointed to inherent weaknesses in the aging aircraft.
Officials announced greater and likely permanent reliance on helicopters and smaller single-engine planes in the absence of a big fleet of large air tankers that can carry 3,000 gallons of flame-dousing retardant.
Air-tanker industry sources, speaking on condition their names not be used, said the federal government is expected to alter that direction in December. A report is expected to call for continuation of an array of aerial firefighting tools, including big tankers.
Tanker 26, a P-3 Orion manufactured by Lockheed, was delivered to the Navy in 1966.
It isnt the age of the aircraft, said Al Ross, a Washington-based spokesman and lobbyist for Aero Union. Its how its maintained.
Hundreds of Orions, many of which are newer models or have been refurbished, are being flown by United States and other nations forces for surveillance.
Unsworth, who is also part owner of Aero Union, praised the corporations efforts to maintain and refurbish P-3s. Seventy mechanics are employed by the company, which also is active in design and manufacturing of aircraft accessories.
In the industry, the firm is generally considered an example of a company that is able to surpass the standards of the Federal Aviation Administration and military, while competing for government low bids.
In one of Aero Unions hangars at Chico airport is a Spanish air force P-3, stripped to the airframe where refurbishing has started.
When completed, it will be dubbed Tanker 17 -- the replacement for Tanker 26.
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