Two air tanker incidents, one crash and one wheels-up landing

Tanker 11
File photo of Tanker 11. Neptune Aviation photo.

Updated at 10:15 p.m. MDT, June 3, 2012

Crash of Air Tanker 11

An air tanker crashed around 1:45 p.m. while working on a wildfire near the Nevada/Utah border today. Tanker 11, a P2V operated by Neptune Aviation, was working on the White Rock fire which started in Nevada 25-38 miles northeast of Caliente, but the fire burned across the state line into Iron County in Utah, which is where the aircraft went down.

There were two people on board, and it was confirmed late this afternoon by Don Smurthwaite at the National Interagency Fire Center that both of them died in the crash. Fox 13 reports that “Det. Jody Edwards, Iron County Sheriff’s Office, identified the two victims as Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless.” Both were from Boise.

The accident occurred at the head of the fire, which made it difficult for rescue personnel to access the crash site.

Tanker 11, registration #N14447, was 57 years old, having been delivered in 1955.

Our condolences go out to the families and coworkers of the crew.

The video below has an interview with Sheldon Wimmer of the BLM in which they discuss the accident and air tankers in general. At 45 seconds, there is very rare footage of what appears to be Tanker 40, the jet-powered BAe-146, making a drop.

Wheels-up landing, Tanker 55

Another incident occurred today involving a second P2V large air tanker, this time operated by Minden Air Corp out of Minden, Nevada. Our source tells us that only one main landing gear and the nose gear were able to be lowered and locked on Tanker 55, leaving one main landing gear up or not locked. The aircraft landed at Minden on just two of the three landing gears.

The air tanker was making retardant drops on the George Fire within the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California when the crew experienced problems with the aircraft, according to Stanton Florea, a US Forest Service spokesperson. The tanker had been reloading with retardant at Porterville, California, but the pilot decided to fly to the company’s base in Minden, Nevada to attempt to land. After arriving in the vicinity of the Minden airport they circled for 90 minutes in order to burn off fuel. Thankfully, the crew was not injured in the landing.

Tanker 55, registration #N355MA, is 55 years old, delivered in 1957.

News4 out of Reno has some photos showing the aircraft to be largely intact, and they described it as a “successful belly landing”. (Note: the video may not work in Firefox.)

HERE is a link to a better video of the emergency landing.

When we have additional details about these two incidents, we will post them here.

Large air tankers grounded

All federal large air tankers have been grounded for the rest of the day. Not because of any specific aircraft issues, but in consideration of the crews flying and maintaining the remaining nine air tankers. The air tanker community is small and close-knit.

Other recent P2V crashes

Air tankers operated by Neptune also crashed in 2008 and 2009. Tanker 09 crashed September 1, 2008 as it was taking off at Reno. Tanker 42 crashed April 25, 2009 while it was ferrying from Missoula, Montana to Alamogordo, New Mexico. Three people died in each incident.

Other incidents within the last two years

  • In 2010 a Neptune-operated P2V ran off the end of the runway at Jeffco airport in Colorado after the brakes failed.
  • Earlier in 2012 the crew flying a Neptune-operated P2V  was not able to lower the landing gear using conventional means after having what was described as “a complete hydraulic failure”, forcing the crew to manually extend the gear. It declared an emergency and as it landed at Missoula it was met by fire trucks.
  • A few weeks ago a couple of P2Vs working out of Prescott, Arizona made emergency landings after having engine problems.
  • Earlier this year a 24-inch crack in a wing spar and skin was discovered on Tanker 10, a Neptune-operated P2V. A few weeks ago Neptune told Wildfire Today that they would not attempt to repair the aircraft this year and it would be put into storage.

Nine large air tankers left

Before the two crashes, there were ten P2Vs and one BAe-146 working on federal exclusive use contracts. This leaves only nine large air tankers in the federal fleet, compared to the 44 on contract in 2002. The U.S. Forest Service still has not made any decisions about awarding additional contracts based on their solicitation for “next generation” air tankers which closed in February, 2012. The next-gen air tankers would eventually replace the P2Vs which are over 50 years old.

In December we wrote about possibilities for next-gen air tankers.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

16 thoughts on “Two air tanker incidents, one crash and one wheels-up landing”

  1. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families, and to the employees & families of Neptune Aviation. It has been such a sad day learning about the incident as more info became available.

  2. I feared that this day would come after the repeated emergencies they had in Prescott. They had to make emergency drops at least twice near the Gladiator due to engine problems, and eventually the city and USFS started cracking down on people hanging out by the runway, as they were afraid that a plane was going to have to make an emergency drop right over the crowds if an engine went out during takeoff.

    This leaves 9 planes assuming that they do not ground the Neptunes like they did in 2002 with the C-130s and PB4Ys, if that happens, then things are going to get really bad, as the fleet will be composed of a single BAe-146, and it looks like we’re in for another bad fire season.

  3. I worked as a firefighter at a USAF Base that flew old aircraft (RF-4Fs) long after Vietnam. Each time a large flight went up, we could always expect at least one IFE (in flight emergency). They RARELY flew unless the mission was critical.

    Flying a small fleet of very OLD air tankers (8hrs a day x 6 days a week) in an active fire season..ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN.

    The SWISS CHEESE writing was on the wall.. and why so many have commented on and off the record to get things fixed before another loss.

    My condolences to the families, as well as the families within the wildland fire community suffering losses. It is a loss that we all understand.

    I knew one of the Pilots lost… He was a great pilot… He shouldn’t have been flying a turd built before he was born and forced to fly it long after it’s usefulness… No offense intended at Neptune Aviation.

    Something is FUBAR!! Hopefully there will be lessons learned. If I offended anyone… tough ****!!

    IMHO

  4. so sorry. Ron was such a great friend to our son Caleb. They are now both together, hashing and running like the wind. RIP, you were both loved.

  5. Just my humble opinion, but the USFS needs to draw a line in the sand and say “No More!” Ground the whole fleet and tell Congress to give us the money we need to get new airtankers. I don’t care if it’s new aircraft bought for the USFS (C-130s, C-27s, etc) or money given to the vendors to develop new models… it needs to happen, and it won’t happen until the USFS gets the funding. The bottom line is that if the Forest Service is going to keep providing this service to the wildland fire community, there has to be extra money to do it. Otherwise I fear we’ll keep seeing incidents like we have the past few years, and we’ll keep losing too many good people.

    Just my opinion though, for what it’s worth.

  6. Ron, you will be missed, our friend. You and Caleb are now together and I am sure you guys are stirring up some mischief. You stuck very close to us with our son died and that is not easily forgotten. Your passing just brings it all back to us. The reality and numbness that we feel today, because of your death, hits real close and stabs our hearts. Again, YOU WILL BE GREATLY MISSED! Run like the wind and have fun with our son also!

  7. Tanker #11 – P-2V N14447 flew as an anti-submarine patrol aircraft with the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was and was one of three ex-RCAF Neptunes purchased by The Flying Fireman for fire fighting use in the early 1970s. When they could not obtain civil certification in Canada, Flying Firemen sent all three Neptunes to the US.

  8. Thoughts and prayers to the family! So sad……

    Yahoo has a high quality video of 55 making their emergency landing. They did a good job!

  9. I am just appalled that the inciweb page for the White Rock Fire has two lousy sentences about the fatal crash, and THAT’S IT. They couldn’t even acknowledge the pilots’ names????? What is with that?

  10. Hi Bill, I just found your site thanks to some links from a friend. This news is terrible and tragic, but I appreciate that you’re reporting the facts and numbers that others don’t. Keep up the good work.

    One minor correction: “Alamogordo” is typo’d in the P2V “other accidents” list.

  11. Justin

    MIGHT be a good idea to tell Congress “No More” but as I have read here and many others know and read……the USFS has no real plan, gone through 6 airtanker studies, shut down two operators who were operating 35-50 yr old aircraft etc etc etc etc etc

    How about we shut down the USFS FAM who are raising safety cards over the obvious over the last 30 yrs using the exact same technology, huh??

    The USFS has really thought they have gotten together with industry……..RIIIIIIIGHT H& P gone, Aero Union…..gone…

    And as I have said earlier, it MAY be Mindens turn…and then what???

    This technology of 50-60 yrs old aircraft, 25 yr old BAe 146, not using Tanker10 LLC and Evergreen 47’s, shutting down two operators, wishing for C130J models…..really????? Shut down the operators???

    Seriously??? Anyone NOT knowing this was a up n coming problem 50+ yrs ago in many USFS “leadership positions” ought to be the ones shut down.

    How do you shutdown a few of the last standing operators, the one I have mentioned above, tell Congrss that, and than expect only what what left plus only then SEATs and helos……REALLLY???

    Great there is a solution looking for a problems for the rest of the 2012 fire season.

    YEAH!!! shut the operators down!!!! how about we do massive clearcuts around the country for the same affect / effect???

  12. Very sad to hear the loss of Mr Tompkins and Mr Chambless.Our deepest condolences to their families and the Neptune staff.They will both be missed by all of us at the White Sands Motel in Alamogordo,NM.

  13. Back in the late 60’s, I was in a Navy VP Squadron that flew these old P2V pieces of junk hunting Russian submarines. They were worn out then and always breaking down. I remember one time in NAS JAX FL, we had 12 planes and they were all down for maintenance at the same time, we had to work overtime to get some of them back in service. They flew over the ocean most of the time and we were always having to do corrosion inspections. In 1968 we were in Sicily and the XO’s plane had so much corrosion damage to the main wing spar on one of the wings that they had to have Intermediate Maintenance come down from Naples and repair the thing enough for them to fly the thing back to the USA. I can’t imagine flying these crates fighting fires with the stresses put on airframes this day and time with the technology available for improvement. My heart goes out to the families of the brave firefighters flying these planes. It should have never came to this, no excuse.

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