Tanker 11 went down while turning onto final approach

The NTSB has released a two-paragraph statement about the accident in which air tanker pilots Todd Tompkins and Ron Chambless were killed. The P2V went down June 3 while they were helping to suppress the White Rock fire in Utah. Here is the complete text of the statement.


NTSB Identification: WPR12GA243

  • Nonscheduled 14 CFR Public Use
  • Accident occurred Sunday, June 03, 2012 in Modena, UT
  • Aircraft: LOCKHEED P2V-7, registration: N14447
  • Injuries: 2 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On June 3, 2012, at 1347 mountain daylight time, a Lockheed P2V-7, N14447 (using call sign Tanker 11), collided with mountainous terrain while conducting firefighting operations 20 miles north of Modena, Utah. The airplane was operated by Neptune Aviation Services under contract with the US Forest Service as a public aerial firefighting flight. Both pilots were fatally injured. The airplane was substantially damaged by impact forces and a post crash fire. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a company flight plan had been filed. The flight originated in Cedar City, Utah, at 1315.

While conducting its second retardant drop of the day, Tanker 11 followed behind the lead airplane into the drop zone. The drop zone was located in a shallow valley that was 0.4 miles wide and 350 feet deep. The lead airplane flew a shallow right-hand turn on to final, and dropped to an altitude of 150 feet above the valley floor over the intended drop area. While making the right turn on to final behind the lead plane, Tanker 11 impacted rising terrain that was about 700 feet left of the lead airplane’s flight path.

(end of NTSB statement)


There had been conflicting reports in the media about whether Tanker 11 crashed before, during, or after it dropped a load of retardant. This statement from the NTSB indicates that the aircraft crashed before it reached the intended drop area, but does not specify if the retardant was jettisoned, as might be done if the aircraft was experiencing difficulties. As usual in these investigations, it will be many months, or years, before the NTSB releases their final report.

A memorial service to celebrate the lives of Todd Tompkins and Ron Chambless will be held Thursday, June 14 in Boise, Idaho.

UPDATE: Fire Aviation has an article about the final NTSB report. And, here is a link to all articles on Fire Aviation tagged “T-11”.

Wildfire magazine’s cover featured Tanker 11

Wildfire cover, May-June, 2012The May/June issue of Wildfire magazine that arrived in mailboxes several weeks ago featured a cover photo of Tanker 11 dropping on a fire in Texas last year. This is the same air tanker that crashed on Sunday, killing the two-person crew.

You can’t see the “11” on the tail of the tanker in the photo to the left here, or in the photos at the Wildfire web site, but trust me, I can see it on the cover of the magazine I have in front of me. This was also pointed out in an email sent to all members of the International Association of Wildland Fire in an email today describing the recent magazine issue.

I don’t believe in curses, fate, or jinxes, but this reminds me of the Sports Illustrated “cover jinx”, in which a person who appears on the cover of the magazine is supposed to be jinxed or experience bad luck.

This issue of the magazine features an excellent article by Walt Darran, in which Mr. Darran, who has a great deal of experience in the aviation and air tanker industry, writes about the future of the air tanker program. You should read the article, but here are some of the points he makes.

  • In spite of what you may hear from the U.S. Forest Service and the still unreleased RAND Corporation report, we need a mix of various types of air tankers in our tool box, not just C-130Js.
  • Having enough air tankers for fast, effective initial attack while fires are small is important. Taking into account the increased fire activity, Mr. Darran says we should have “40 to 50 or more Type 1, 2, and 3 air tankers”.
  • The state of California’s air tanker program could be a model, with Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated air tankers working side by side with a fleet of helicopters that are Government-Owned, Government-Operated.
  • Since it is unrealistic to expect operators of expensive aircraft to maintain the availability of air tankers and crews on a Call When Needed contract, a retainer should be supplied to cover costs of maintaining the aircraft airworthiness and crew currency so it is available when we need it. “Imagine SEAL Team 6 on a CWN contract” Mr. Darran wrote.

Neptune’s official statement

Neptune Aviation has released an official statement about Sunday’s crash of their air tanker:


Date: June 4, 2012


Missoula, Montana — On June 3, 2012, Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana experienced a fatal aircraft accident while performing aerial firefighting activities in western Utah.

Captain Todd Tompkins and First Officer Ron Chambless were flying Tanker 11, a Lockheed P2V-7, when the aircraft made contact with the ground while flying in the active fire drop zone. The aircraft was dispatched from the Cedar City, Utah airtanker base to the White Rock Fire near the Utah-Nevada state line. Neither crewmember survived the accident.

Captain Tompkins had 20 years of aviation experience with 14 years as an airtanker pilot. He faithfully served Neptune Aviation since 2006. First Officer Chambless had 8 years of aviation experience with many years in wildland firefighting. This was his first fire season with Neptune Aviation.

In accordance with company policy, Neptune Aviation implemented a voluntary stand-down of its fleet in order for the Director of Flight Operations and Director of Maintenance to debrief all crewmembers and mechanics before releasing the fleet back to active duty. At the time of this press release, Neptune’s fleet of airtankers has been released back to active duty.

We want to take this opportunity to send our thoughts to Minden Air and the crewmembers of Tanker 55. We are so grateful that those involved did not sustain injuries.

For more information, please contact Mike Pfau. At this time, Neptune Aviation is unable to comment as to any accident specifics. The investigation has been turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board. Neptune continues to work closely with the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of Interior, Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and local authorities.

Neptune Aviation Services was incorporated in May 1993 after purchasing the assets of Black Hills Aviation of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Upon acquiring its fleet and personnel, Neptune relocated its main base of operation to Missoula, Montana, substantially increasing in size and capabilities. Currently, Neptune has a mixed fleet of Lockheed P2V and British Aerospace BAe-146 aircraft.

“Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with all the family and friends of those impacted by this event. Todd and Ronnie were truly considered a part of our family and they will be deeply missed.” – Kristen Nicolarsen, CEO of Neptune Aviation.


Investigation begins into the crash of Tanker 11

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.

All air tankers are grounded today

Tanker 11 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, 6-15-2011 photo by Ned Harris
File photo of Tanker 11 at Libby Army Airfield, AZ, June 15, 2011. Photo by Ned Harris

UPDATED at 5:01 p.m. MT, June 4, 2012

Air tankers grounded

The day after the crash of Air Tanker 11 on Sunday which killed two pilots, all air tankers are grounded, we were told by Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service at Boise. Neptune Aviation, the company that operated Tanker 11, took the initiative to ground their remaining fleet of eight air tankers. Most likely the company took the step in order to help their crews and staff cope with their loss, but we are waiting for a return call from Neptune to confirm the exact reason.

In addition, following the emergency landing in which one of the three landing gears did not deploy on Minden Air Corp Tanker 55 on Sunday, the federal government is conducting an inspection on Minden’s other air tanker, Tanker 48, making it unavailable.

The result, at least for today, is the entire fleet of nine large air tankers is not available.

As these 50-plus year old aircraft age even more, the U.S. Forest Service’s commitment to putting all of their eggs in one or two baskets makes it more likely that total or near-total grounding of the air tanker fleet can occur again after a crash or when a defect is discovered. Eight of the remaining air tankers are Korean war vintage P2Vs, and one is a BAe-146 delivered in 1986. Eight are operated by Neptune, and Minden has one left.

More details about the crash

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting a few more details about the crash of Tanker 11. Here is an excerpt:

…An eyewitness told KUTV that moments before the plane crashed, it was flying very low, clipping the tops of trees.

Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said Monday afternoon that it appeared that the right wing tip hit the ground, causing the plane to go into a cartwheel. The plane was destroyed, the debris spread across a 500-to-600 foot area.

“You could see it was a very violent crash,” Gower said.

The cause of the crash remained under investigation Monday and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on the way to the remote and rugged crash site Monday afternoon.

The Missoulian has an article about Todd Tompkins, 48, one of the pilots killed in the crash. The article also has some photos of the crash site.

More aerial resources becoming available?

There is a rumor that Tanker 911, a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier is being brought on contract, but at 3:36 p.m. MT, June 4, we talked with Rick Hatton, the President of the company, and he has not been notified of this development. He said he also heard the rumor, and was hoping that my call was, instead of me, a contracting officer with the USFS.  The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, five times more than a P2V and four times more than a BAe-146.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS in Boise told us that they have not hired a DC-10, but they are bringing on a CV 580 that is on contract with the state of Alaska, and they are exploring possibilities of bringing on some Type 1 helicopters early, but as far as she knows that has not happened yet.

The US Forest Service has shown no interest recently in awarding exclusive use contracts to the Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) such as the DC-10, 747, or Martin Mars, and has only offered Call When Needed contracts. It is difficult or impossible to maintain any large aircraft and a very specialized crew when there is no assurance that it will be used. The USFS is missing the boat if they do not utilize these assets, period, but especially under these conditions.

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. June 3 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.

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 reported the aircraft was largely intact and described it as a “successful belly 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.