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.

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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