Air tanker 44 slides off runway at Rocky Mountain Metro Airport

P2 crash in Colorado
Tanker 44 off the runway. Photo: Cliff Grassmick

Air tanker 44, a P2V-5 Neptune operated by Neptune Aviation in Missoula, MT, experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado at 12:30 p.m. today (map). Both pilots self-evacuated and were walking around when fire apparatus arrived to put out a fire in one of the engines.

The retardant base at the airport, which had been supporting the  Cow Creek fire in Rocky Mountain National Park (photo) and the Round Mountain fire,  shut down for the rest of the day.

The air tanker was built in 1954 and had just completed a drop on the Cow Creek fire.

This is the third accident involving Neptune’s P2 air tankers within the last two years, with the other two being fatal for the three-person crews. On September 1, 2008 Tanker 09 crashed while attempting to take off from the Reno airport when an auxiliary jet-assist engine disintegrated. On April 25, 2009 Tanker 42 flew into a mountain near Toole, Utah while ferrying from Missoula to Alamogordo, New Mexico for a fire assignment.

If my math is correct, this reduces the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in the United States from 19 to 18.

These three crashes of aircraft from one company in less than 2-years brings to mind the two crashes of air tankers operated by Hawkins and Powers in 2002 which resulted in all large air tankers being grounded for an extended period of time. Those two crashes were different from the latest P2V-5 crashes, in that they were caused by the wings literally falling off the aircraft.

From Wikipedia:

Almost two years after the Summer 2002 crashes and as a direct result of the ensuing investigations, on May 10, 2004, the Forest Service abruptly terminated the contracts for the entire large tanker fleet. USFS Chief Dale Bosworth stated, “Safety is a core value of the firefighting community, and it is non-negotiable. To continue to use these contract large airtankers when no mechanism exists to guarantee their airworthiness presents an unacceptable level of risk to the aviators, the firefighters on the ground and the communities we serve.” [14] The decision affected tanker contracts issued by both the USFS and BLM.

We are very thankful that THIS TIME there were no fatalities, but how many crashes of 50 to 60-year old air tankers, usually resulting in fatalities, do we have to endure before the five federal agencies shit or get off the pot and bring on a new generation of air tankers that are less likely to crash?

We wrote about this topic on August 8, 2009:

According to a September 2, 1987 story in the New York Times, during the huge lightning bust in northern California when firefighters were battling hundreds of fires that year, they were assisted by 48 air tankers. In 2002 there were 44.

The U. S. Forest Service has said that by 2012 the existing 19 large air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy. The average age of the large air tankers is 50 years old.

Discussions about this have been going on since at least 2005 when Congress directed the USFS to come up with a strategic plan for procuring and managing aircraft for fighting wildfires. But that plan has never seen the light of day.

The new Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Jay Jensen said the agency is working on the plan and it might be released by the end of the year. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggests that the plan should be released by September 30 so that it can be considered when preparing the next fiscal year’s budget.

While the U. S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior do nothing, we continue to award lowest bid contracts for 50 to 60 year old aircraft which far too often crash, usually killing the crews. We need a modern, safe, fleet of large air tankers, that are no more than 20 to 25 years old. Preferably new, purpose-built air tankers, like the CL-415, or even the Russian-built Be-200 if it is tested and determined to be suitable for use in the United States.

Apathy about this serious safety issue by the USFS and DOI is not acceptable.

Going back to Chief Bosworth’s statement in 2004 about the air tanker fleet — was it true then, or is it true today?

Safety is a core value of the firefighting community, and it is non-negotiable.

Words are easy. Actions…not so much.

UPDATE: On June 29 we explored in more detail the future of the air tanker fleet, and offered some suggestions on an upgrade path.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

14 thoughts on “Air tanker 44 slides off runway at Rocky Mountain Metro Airport”

  1. First off I’d like to say I’m relived that the pilot and co-pilot are safe. I spoke to them just three days ago when they were at my base and my first thoughts were how I’d watched tanker 09 fly off to Reno the morning of it’s horrible crash.

    About the new tankers I’ve spoke a lot with pilots from Minden, Neptune, and Aero Union over the years and the one thing that seems constant is that jets just are not the way to go. Haven’t found a person yet that likes the idea of the new BAe 146 as a tanker.

    The 415’s like you said would be a good way to go, or simply build new P-3s from the ground up as they are, in my opinion as well as most pilots I talk to, the best planes for the job.

  2. Another quick comment, this reduces the number of heavy air tankers from 24 to 23 not including the two new jets.

    1. Is 23 the total number of large and very large air tankers, including those that are not on exclusive use contracts? It is my understanding, as I said in the article, that there are now 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

      1. That was simply off our 2010 list of P-2s and P-3s because that’s the only heavies we get here in CO. Right now all but 4 are on contract, with another P-3 coming on contract tomorrow.

  3. Bill,

    I’ve heard similar numbers on FS contracted heavy airtankers (Type 1 and Type 2).

    This year, BLM contracted far fewer SEATs due to budget shortfalls.

    In our area, both firefighters and pilots are looking forward to the results of the BAe-146 platform testing. Just because it’s a “jet”

    I’m not a pilot, but I’ve been told there isn’t much difference between a turbofan (turbojet) platform vs. a turboprop platform such as in use on the P-3s and S-2Ts. It’s all about airworthiness and flight characteristics.

    While I love the sound of old radial engines, their time has passed, as have the old airframes that are carrying them. JMHO.

  4. Spool time is the issue. When you need power, you need it now. Not in the 5-8 seconds it takes for a turbo-fan to spool up to speed. That 5-8 seconds is the difference between life and death.

    Jets just dont cut it. Never have never will.

    Recips are best, turbo-props are ok, but much more susceptable to contamination and temperature spikes that a recip laughs off.

    Turbo-prop reliability however trumps the tempramental nature of the old recips.

    Availabilty of aeroshell 100 was an issue 10 years ago. There just isnt profitability for manufactureres to produce it anymore.
    I used to stash 55 gallon drums all around the country at different tanker bases whenever I could get it, and inevitably other recips drivers would beg me for my juice. Just call your local lubricant supplier and ask him how many 55 gallon drums of Aeroshell 100 he has, and listen to his reply.

    Plane no go with no go juice.

    Gotta remember the old recips were designed to run on purple fuel as well, which hasnt been seen anywhere in over two decades. 100 LL is a poor substitute for 130 leaded, detonation and preignition are much more likely and frequent with the lower quality fuel. Thats why the power settings are derated with the lower quality fuel.
    More than you wanted to know? That just the tip of the iceberg.

    1. Sad but true. Days of the 115/145 are gone and the 5606 is Skydrol now. As you stated the recip age is coming to a close, however, it is not because of the age of the planes nor the amount of hours on them. I am sure that any of the BAE-146 have twice the amount of hours on them and then there is the pressurization caused metal fatigue. Remember the 737 in Hawaii? In the 20+ years I was involved, the word was “We want a do all plane” Good luck on that! Then it was carry more retardant, can do but at what cost? If you load it up with retardant then something has to go to make the gross takeoff weight. Fuel was the easiest to take away but then you cut the range. The Blue Ribbon Panel had it all figured out and what happened to their recommendations? Filed away in some archive, as many of us old timers, collecting dust and lint.
      Oh well, time for my meds. See ya!

  5. Just so folks (pilots) know I’m not spouting and actually concerned.

    My Grandfather was the VP of McDonnell-Douglas upon his retirement. He was the Chief Engineer on the DC-7/DC-8 program and the VP for the DC-10.

    If you are cutting corners or leveraging your actual “spool up” or “get away” time AND ACTUALLY thinking that that somehow matters in the bigger picture… IT DOESN’T. It means you did some stupid sh*t and are expecting the platform to “correct”.

    We care more about WHETHER YOU COME HOME or not.

    I’ll say it again… It’s all about flight characteristics and airworthiness.

    For you old tanker pilots, PLEASE… Shut the hell up and let folks help make YOUR profession safer… or do you prefer to not listen to the folks on the ground?

    I’ve been on two fatal airtanker crashes in the last ten years… I’d prefer to not be on any others in my career.

    Bill, your “rant” is not a rant but something we all agree must be corrected.

    JMHO.

  6. For a humble opinion you are pretty damn sure those of who fly them are doing it wrong. It’s not about doing some stupid sh*t as you say. Every done a push over drop? I didnt think so. There is nothing stupid about have your engines at idle while you are in a dive and then needing power to climb out. Get off your high horse and read what was written without your preconceived notions affecting your judgement.

  7. I like to have the pilots make the choice on the aircraft they fly and mission they want to do. I do not know many pilots who will put themselves or the aircraft in undue risk. Aerial fire fighting is a high risk job. A lot more dangerous then taking a weekend senic flight in a C-172. On the other hand the fire pilots have a lot more experience and skill then you typical private pilot.

    I have been on many missions as a helicopter manager when both the pilot and I asked why we were out there and turned around and went home, deciding the risk was not worth it. These seldom make the news, the most is a note in the base flight log. Terminated unsafe mission.

    As for old airplanes sooner or later we will all have to adjust to new technology.

  8. The CAFE — Strategic Aerial Firefighting Excellence report that Steven Hall referred to in another thread has this to say about turbofan engines. (The report can be found here:
    http://www.avweb.com/other/STRATEGIC_AERIAL_FIREFIGHTI.pdf )

    ================

    While high by-pass ratio, turbofan engines may provide some advantages, two issues need to be considered in some detail. The first issue is the spool-up time required before a requested increase in thrust is generated by the engines, particularly at relatively high-pressure altitudes. Too long a delay in spool-up time could prove to be catastrophic, particularly in mountainous terrain where a combination of power and abrupt manoeuvres can be required for terrain avoidance purposes.

    The second issue is that of the debris over a fire. An intense fire can generate a considerable amount of burning debris that is propelled into the air by the violent air currents that are generated by the fire itself. The large volume of air that is ingested by the high by-pass ratio turbofan engines makes them analogous to airborne vacuum cleaners that will be prone to ingest large quantities of fire debris. At this stage, the impact that typical fire debris will have on integrity and operational efficiency of turbofan engines it unknown. However, it is strongly recommended that this issue be investigated in some detail before large sums of money are committed to developing concepts/aircraft that are powered by turbofan engines. In reality, these aircraft may not be capable of being deployed in the immediate vicinity of a wildland fire.

  9. Ex-tanker pilot,

    I’m sorry if I offended you. I spoke from my personal experience, the experience of others that were shared with me, and from the scientific research.

    When I said JMHO… it was just that, nothing more or nothing less.

    I have a different perspective being both a firefighter/chief officer, from an aviation family, and someone who has been literally been “first in” when an airtanker goes down and kills our friends and coworkers.

    Literally “first in” in during the response/”first in” in the recovery/and “first in” in the support of the family and friends.

    I’m staying engaged and looking for the answers in memory and remembrance of those lost.

    Ken

  10. As a long time P2 flight plane captain USNR logging 2000 Blue water time I would only coment on the P2.
    There is no excuse for the emergency brake system to not work, if it is checked thats called maintaince. I can state that the system works because I have used it after total hydrolic failure.
    On T09 at Reno It might be that the #1 engine had an uncontauined engine failure. which put parts of the recip into the J-34 jet which caused it to fail.
    I know of no J 34 engine failures other than it ingesting parts.
    Gary

    1. Gary-

      Thanks for the info about the emergency brake.

      Regarding the crash of Tanker 09 at Reno, the NTSB reported:

      After in-depth inspection and analysis [of the J-34 turbojet engine], it was determined that the 11th stage compressor disc had failed near the transition radius between the disc web and the bolting ring.

      More information about the NTSB’s factual report about T09:
      http://wildfiretoday.com/2010/01/01/ntsb-releases-factual-report-on-crash-of-tanker-09/

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