Today we are still mourning Sunday’s line of duty deaths of two wildfire aviators. The two-person crew of Neptune Aviation’s Tanker 11, pilot Todd Tompkins, 48, and co-pilot Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, were killed when their P2V air tanker crashed as it was making a retardant drop on the White Rock fire on the Utah/Nevada state line.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will make their first visit to the accident site Tuesday.
Here is an update on the incident, excerpted from an article by Rob Chaney in the Missoulian. The article has a couple of photos of the accident scene.
Neptune Aviation Tanker 11 was dropping a load of retardant on the leading edge of the White Rock fire in Utah on Sunday afternoon when one wing apparently hit a tree and the Lockheed P2V cartwheeled into the ground.
“From what the investigators could see, the plane began to touch the treetops as it tried to unload its retardant,” Iron County Sheriff’s Detective Jody Edwards said from Cedar City, Utah, where Tanker 11 was based for the fire. “They could see the cone of debris where the slurry came out, see where the wing tip touched and see a number of divots where it broke into several pieces.
“In spite of the efforts of firefighters, the fire passed through the debris field,” Edwards said. “We had 10 members walk the debris field to preserve evidence and recover the bodies. The soles of our shoes were melting. Some of the aluminum from the plane had turned molten, and ran down the hillside.”
Neptune Aviation crews on wildfires around the country stood down to mourn on Sunday. They resumed work on Monday.
The White Rock fire had grown from 15 acres to 5,000 between its lightning start on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. By Monday, it was up to 8,000 acres.
Tompkins had been flying for 20 years, including 14 years as an air tanker pilot. He leaves behind a wife and three children.
Chambless was a wildland firefighter and had been with Neptune for one year. He had eight years of aviation experience.
The stand-down was for personal reasons and not an aircraft safety factor, according to Don Smurthwaite at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigative crew was on its way to the crash site west of Cedar City, Utah, on Monday. Two single-engine air tankers resumed retardant drops on the White Rock fire as well…
The AP quoted Tom Harbour, the USFS’ National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, about the deteriorating fleet of air tankers:
…”They are aging, and we know we need to replace them,” said Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire and aviation operations director. “That’s why the chief (of the Forest Service) sent Congress an air tanker strategy a couple months ago that said we needed to modernize the fleet.”
Harbour said the agency has concluded that the nation needs up to 28 of the next generation of air tankers, those that can fly faster and carry more retardant. Overall, the Forest Service budgets $70 million a year on firefighting aircraft out of $2 billion overall fighting wildfires. Bids are being evaluated on the next generation planes, but the service currently pays $10,000 a day and $6,000 per hour of flight time for exclusive-use contracts.
However, replacing the aging fleet will not happen quickly, Harbour added. A contract for three of them will be awarded later this month, and four more will be added next year, he said.
A review of firefighting plane crashes over the last two decades found that various models of the P2V aircraft had been involved in at least seven fatal crashes while fighting wildfires, including the one that crashed on Sunday.