Aero flies on

Last week’s air tanker crash near the Lassen National Forest may have revived fears about the safety of the nation’s airborne firefighting fleet, but officials say that at this point they have no plans to ground any more planes.

The April 20th crash of an Orion P-3 air tanker operated by Chico-based Aero Union claimed the lives of three experienced air pilots and tarnished the company’s safety record less than a year after the company had lobbied strenuously to be allowed to continue fighting forest fires under contract with the federal government.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service’s aerial firefighting contracts, grounded the entire fleet of mostly military surplus planes that have been converted into air tankers, citing safety reasons. But Aero Union, with help from local Rep. Wally Herger, fought to keep its fleet of 13 P3s and DC-4s flying, arguing that the accidents that prompted the USDA to ground the fleet had involved different planes than Aero Union was using.

The crashes of 2002, which led to the grounding of the air tanker fleet, involved aging planes that had developed stress fractures where their wings met their fuselages. The use of those planes, C130As and PBY4s, has been discontinued.

A Forest Service spokesman said the agency still had “full confidence” in the airworthiness of Aero Union’s P3s.

“After standing down all the aircraft after the crashes in summer 2002, we went through a long process, and we determined the P3 Orions still have a lot of service life in them and a lot of flying hours ahead of them. As far as we are concerned, they are a sound aircraft,” reported Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

An investigation of the crash led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is ongoing and could take months to wrap up. But preliminary data shows that the plane hit the ground in one piece, which tends to rule out structural failure.

“NTSB’s investigation is not over yet, but what they did tell us … was that the entire aircraft was in one place on the ground. Everything was in one contiguous burn zone,” Mathes said. “NTSB is not in the business of making conclusions this early, but our interest in it is, did the aircraft break up in mid-air? Based on the fact that all parts of last week’s crash plane were in one place, our initial thought is that it did not break up in mid-air, and our hope is that there is not a structural problem with the P3 Orion. If we’d have found the wings some distance from the crash site, we might be having a different conversation right now.”

Mathes said the Forest Service will still contract this fire season with Aero Union, which he called “a good outfit.”

The city of Chico likewise is still voicing faith in the company, as evidenced by its continuation in the building of two new hangar buildings at the Chico Municipal Airport that the company has agreed to lease.