Federal safety investigators continue to try to determine why an air tanker fighting a wildfire for the Forest Service crashed in the Sierra’s this summer.
Critics say their time would be better spent trying to learn why the vintage military surplus plane was in the air in the first place.
An Associated Press review of thousands of court records and correspondence shows the C-130-A cargo plane that took three crew members to their deaths would have been pulled from fire duty years ago if the Forest Service had listened to warnings from a number of sources. Among others, the red flags were raised by the agency’s own experts, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, the federal government’s property manager, a private whistleblower who sued in protest and federal prosecutors in the Justice Department’s fraud unit. Jim Lyons was the assistant agriculture secretary who directed the Forest Service under the Clinton administration. He calls the air fleet the “Achilles heel of the nation’s firefighting effort.” Lyons told the AP this week it reminds him of a question he used to ask when he was in office. That is, “Why the hell do they continue to fly these old death traps?”
A blue ribbon panel investigating the air fleet issued a report yesterday critical of the safety record. The Forest Service responded by permanently grounding eleven air tankers and launching a review of others.
Documents show the Forest Service was told repeatedly that the 46-year-old aircraft with the wing that snapped off near Walker, California in June should not have been released from the Air Force “bone yard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in 1988 and virtually given to Hawkins and Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.
Hawkins & Powers is a longtime firefighting contractor, which, along with others, has been hired for decades for the dangerous mission of dropping retardant on wildfires in rough, inaccessible terrain.
The company insists it legally secured the plane that later crashed and maintains that its aircraft are safe. Critics say planes like this one that the government traded hoping to obtain historic, museum quality aircraft were not being maintained to stringent Air Force safety standards. They say the planes should have been returned to the U.S. government years ago due to the illegal nature of the exchanges.
The plane that crashed in the Sierra’s – Tanker 130, Serial Number 56-0538 – was one of nearly two-dozen the Air Force released to private contractors in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The aircraft exchange program later brought federal indictments in 1996 and sent two men to federal prison.
The exchanges were halted under the Clinton administration, but most of the planes remain in the hands of the private contractors. One crashed in 1994, also killing three crewmembers. The transfers were portrayed at the time as necessary to bolster the Forest Service’s depleted firefighting fleet to help save property and lives from devastating wildfires.
But court documents suggest the exchange was driven by contractors seeking profits. Some used the planes to moonlight on questionable overseas missions, ignoring U.S. restrictions limiting their use to domestic firefighting.
The Justice Department brought criminal charges and convicted two men of conspiracy to steal 22 planes for their role in the exchange program. Those men were Fred Fuchs, the Forest Service’s ex-assistant director of aviation, and Roy Reagan, a former Defense Department official and airplane broker who helped secure planes for Hawkins and Powers and others, including the one that crashed in the Sierra’s this summer.
Janet Napolitano, the new governor-elect of Arizona who was U.S. attorney in Tucson at the time, said in the 1996 federal indictment that if Reagan’s “true status and true intentions” had been made clear, the Air Force “would not have approved the transfer of the aircraft to the Forest Service.”
The regional chief of the property management branch for the General Services Administration in San Francisco had told Forest Service procurement officers the same thing a year earlier.
The Agriculture Department’s inspector general first recommended the agency repossess the planes after two of them were caught hauling cargo illegally in Kuwait in 1991.
As recently as November 1998, the Forest Service made an attempt to recover the planes. But Forest Service officials say the contractors resisted and several of the planes have been tied up in legal battles.
Experts inside and outside the Forest Service have been warning since 1994 – the last time there were two fatal crashes in the same year – that the aircraft were not properly maintained. Since 1992, there have been seven air tanker accidents and 15 fatalities.