A Sad Weekend For The Aerial Firefighting Community

By: Category: Airtankers

 

As it is well known by now, Sunday was a very tragic day: Tanker 11 (P2V Neptune, N14447, owned by Neptune Aviation) crashed in Utah, killing both pilots, Todd Tompkins and Ronnie Chambless, both of Boise. Also yesterday, Tanker 55 (P2V Neptune, N355MA), flown by Minden Aviation landed with one landing gear retracted, suffering substantial damage.

Bill at Wildfire Today reports that the entire fleet is still grounded as of yesterday afternoon, however, everything points out to be a voluntary grounding on Neptune Aviation’s side and not a government-mandated grounding.

These two unfortunate events have reduced the already reduced airtanker fleet to NINE airframes, 8 P2Vs and 1 BAe-146, all but one P2V flown by Neptune Aviation, only Tanker 48 is operated by Minden Aviation.

Sadly, I can’t say that these events surprise me, at all, and for weeks I feared that this day would come. I know of 3 engine-out landings in Prescott that occurred within a week (See here, here and here) and a 4th engine failure (that was actually the first failure that I know of, but it happened while the plane was at the USFS ramp), and at least one of the engine failures resulted in an emergency payload dump near the Gladiator Fire. And I must admit that I was very worried about the airplane’s performance, as they were spending a lot of time in the air, especially during the first few days of the Gladiator Fire, and I did start shaking when I heard on the radio “Tanker XX, please confirm how much fuel onboard and how many souls”, and as soon as I got to the airport and saw it parked at the ramp I was relieved.

And this the unfortunate side effect of relying on a small fleet of planes that are in their mid 50s and are powered by some great, but very temperamental, radial engines. To be honest, the companies that fly and maintain them do a great job at keeping these planes flying, the longest time I saw a plane sitting on the ramp was about 2 days, and it appears that they had to swap one of the engines on that plane. However, when the government spends money on studies that tell them that “the current airtanker fleet is small, aging and in dire need of replacement” and not on actually replacing them, things like this happen. We all remember what happened almost 10 years ago with Tanker 130 and Tanker 123, fortunately, none of the current witness reports indicate that Tanker 11 had a structural failure, however, the fact that one plane (effectively 9% of the airtanker fleet) had a catastrophic accident is cause of much concern.

Tanker 55 in happier days

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to take a picture of Tanker 11, however, Ryan Coulter took this excellent photo.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave airmen who lost their lives yesterday, and with all their friends and coworkers at Neptune Aviation.

And a big thank you to all the pilots, mechanics and staff at both Minden and Neptune, whose effort to keep and fly these planes in the air while fighting the Gladiator Fire saved the historic community of Crown King. God Bless You All.

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