Fire season opens with fatal air tanker crash

The crash of an air tanker may prompt another grounding of air tankers during the 2005 fire season.

All three crewmen on board were killed when the military surplus P-3B Orion crashed near Chico, Calif., during a training flight April 22. The aircraft, built in 1966 for the United States Navy, was converted to a fire-bomber after release from military service and was contracted by the U.S. Forest Service for the upcoming fire season. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Last year the large air tanker fleet was grounded after the in-flight break-ups of two aircraft during water drops in the 2002 fire season.

The accidents were attributed to cracks in the wings. Hawkins and Powers of Greybull, Wyo., owned both aircraft. Before the 2002 accidents, the company had 40 years of fighting fires without incidents.

Recently family members of two men killed in one of the 2002 crashes sued six federal agencies saying they allowed lax maintenance, relying on private contractors who were encouraged to keep older planes in the air.

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