10 years ago today, the second air tanker crash of 2002

Tanker 123 crash near Estes Park, CO, July 18, 2002
Tanker 123 crash near Estes Park, CO, July 18, 2002. Credit: Matt Inden – Special to The News

Ten years ago today, on June 18, 2002, the second air tanker crash of the year occurred, killing the two-person crew of Tanker 123, as one of the wings fell off of the PB4Y-2 as it was operating over the Big Elk fire near Estes Park, Colorado.

Tanker 123 at Chester, California
Tanker 123 at Chester, CA in the late 1990s. Photo from Wikipedia

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found extensive stress fatigue and fractures in key components of the aircraft, which was manufactured in 1945 for the U.S. Navy, transferred to the Coast Guard in 1952, discarded in 1956, and converted into an air tanker in 1958.

This crash occurred just a month after another fatal air tanker crash. Near Walker, California on June 17, Tanker 130, a C-130A, experienced a major structural failure. As you can see in the video below, both wings fell off the aircraft just after it completed a retardant drop. The three members of the crew were killed.

The NTSB also found fatigue cracks on that aircraft, which was built in 1957, discarded by the military in 1978, and converted into an air tanker in 1988. At the time of the crash, the airframe had logged 21,863 flight hours.

Tanker 130
Tanker 130, circa early 2002. Photo from Wikipedia

Following the crashes, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management commissioned the Blue Ribbon Fact Finding Panel on Aviation to “identify key information for planning the safe and effective future of the aviation program.” It was led by James E. Hall, who had served for seven years as Chairman of the NTSB. After their December 2002 report, the USFS and the BLM  declined to renew the contracts on nine C-130A and PB4Y-2 air tankers, and ordered the remaining large air tankers to undergo an improved inspection program before they returned to active service.

Memorial 2002 air tanker crews
Memorial for the 2002 air tanker crews, at Greybull airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert, July 14, 2012.

In a June 17, 2012 Denver Post article about the two air tanker crashes on June 3, 2012, Mr. Hall was quoted as saying:

I am extremely concerned. It’s been 10 years, and precious little has been done.

In a June 21, 2012 article in the New York Times he was quoted again:

We’ve failed to invest. We’re stepping back to these old tankers and old aircraft, and we’ve done nothing to develop any new technology.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “10 years ago today, the second air tanker crash of 2002”

  1. There hasnt been a day in ten years that I have not thought of or missed my friends. I wish I could say we have learned from your sacrifice, but we have not. I’m sorry.

  2. RIP Steve Wass and crew. Steve was a friend of mine been around 130 quite a bit. They were the La Grande tanker for several seasons…
    Of course the Nine 130’s were blanket rejected. No case by case no trial no nothing.
    Same for the 4y’s which BTW were IRAN’ed in the 50’s
    when they were used by the USCG…


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