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Tanker Pilot Widow Blasts Forest Service

The widow of an airtanker pilot killed in a crash, when the wings broke off while fighting a wildfire in the Sierra near Walker last month, is blasting the Forest Service for ignoring safety problems.

Laurie LaBare of Arcata, California says the Forest Service treats the pilots like dogs.

She told KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon that it is “absolutely ridiculous” to put pressure on them to fly the planes like the 46-year-old airtanker that her husband Craig died in. In her words, the planes are “pieces of junk.”

The C-130-A built by Lockheed in 1956 was among dozens of surplus military aircraft the Forest Service put in the hands of private contractors in the 1980s as part of a controversial exchange program aimed at fortifying its firefighting fleet.

The one that crashed in the Sierra on June 17th was owned by Hawkins & Powers Aviation of Greybull, Wyoming. The crash was captured by KOLO-TV of Reno as the wings snapped and the plane burst into flames.

The 36-year-old LaBare was killed along with 42-year-old Steve Wass of Gardnerville, Nevada, and Michael Davis of Bakersfield, California.

The contractor reported to the FAA in 1998 that the plane had two, one-inch cracks in a wings. But Company owner Gene Powers says he replaced the wing in 1998 and was confident in the plane´s airworthiness.

Powers says his firm does a better job of maintenance than anybody in the business. But one of his former pilots disagrees. Greg Speck told the Portland TV station he worked as a pilot for Hawkins and Powers until he quit three years ago because of concerns about maintenance. Speck says, “I walked away, and it may be the reason I´m still alive.”

Mrs. LaBare says she heard the crew speak often about problems with spare parts and repairs. She says sometimes they were told they would not get a repair until the plane stopped flying.

A similar account was described in an internal Forest Service review in 1995 after a pair of fatal crashes in 1994. A memo obtained by The Associated Press at the time said maintenance was put off until the problems were so severe the aircraft couldn´t get off the ground.