There have been calls for the US Forest Service to overhaul and modernise its ‘ageing air fleet’ after two separate incidents involving Lockheed P2V air tankers, one of which claimed the lives of both pilots. Both of the incidents took place on 3 June. One tanker had been fighting a forest fire in southern Utah and crashed into a rocky canyon in the Hamblin Valley area of western Utah after apparently striking the ground with a wing tip, according to Iron County sheriff Mark Gower. The left-side landing gear could not be extended as the bay doors would not open, and Gower said that the plane ‘practically disintegrated’, leaving a 600-yard debris field and killing both pilots.
Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell released the following statement: “Our hearts go out to the families of the two brave pilots who were lost yesterday after their air tanker went down fighting a Nevada wildfire. We will continue working with our aircraft contractors and fire fighting professionals to manage these natural disasters as safely as possible.”
The second air tanker had also been fighting a wildfire south of Reno, Nevada, and was forced to make an emergency landing at Minden-Tahoe airport after suffering a mechanical failure, although its pilots escaped without injury. At the time of writing the incidents are still under investigation, and Montana-based Neptune Aviation, which owns the tanker that crashed in Utah, has said that the P2V’s cockpit voice recorder might provide important clues. Tom Tidwell said that officials would need to ‘wait and see’ what the outcome of the investigation would be, while also acknowledging the necessity for modernisation, and added that the Forest Service was approaching contractors with regard to upgrading to more modern aircraft. Montana Senator Jon Tester was fairly forthright in his response. “These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet,” Tester said, in a letter to Tidwell. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement.”
The Lockheed P2V was originally a Cold War-era submarine attack plane, but they have been repurposed for fire fighting operations. Since they were added to the US fire fighting fleet in 1990, there have been at least seven crashes due to mechanical failure or pilot error, resulting in 16 deaths, and 33 of the tankers were grounded in 2004 after several high-profile crashes, two of which involved wings falling off the aircraft.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, chairman of the Forestry Subcommittee, warned: “As the air tanker fleet continues to atrophy, it’s going to reduce the country’s ability to get there early, which is why so many of these fires mushroom.”
Neptune Aviation has insisted that the P2V is safe, despite its age.