Two events involving Lockheed P2V firefighting aircraft this Sunday graphically displayed the dangers and skills required to safely fight fires with aircraft, and also renewed calls for fleet modernization. As the week began, pilots Todd Tompkins and Ronnie Chambless were killed fighting a blaze in Utah. Witnesses say the wing of their 1962 P2V appeared to touch the ground in a rocky canyon before the aircraft impacted in the active drop zone. The crash reportedly left a 600-yard debris field that was later consumed by the same fire the crew had been fighting. Another P2V fighting another fire south of Reno executed a safe landing at Minden, Nev., in a stiff crosswind with one wheel up. There is video of the second event.
Ground crews working with the pilots who were killed in the Utah crash attempted to protect the wreckage from the fire so they could extract the bodies of the pilots. The were unable and were forced to complete the task after the fire burned through. Loss of those pilots adds to at least 14 other aerial firefighters lost since 1990. The company that operated the aircraft, Neptune Aviation, grounded its remaining fleet to debrief mechanics and flight crew. All air tankers operated by the company have since returned to service. At Minden, pilots of another P2V owned by Minden Air Corp. successfully landed their aircraft in stiff crosswinds with the leeward left main gear stuck in the "up" position. (See video at right.)
Months ago, the head of the Forest Service sent Congress a new air tanker strategy that also called for fleet modernization. Bids are being evaluated on a next generation of aircraft for the service. Currently, exclusive-use contracts account for much of the nation's aerial firefighting capability and should add seven more aircraft through 2013.