'Can Do' Attitude May Have Doomed Firefighting Crew

Associated Press Writer

The three men in the air tanker crew didn't complain to their bosses because it's not what you do if you want to keep flying.

But like others before them, the three who died in a crash while fighting a fire in the Sierra last summer knew the half-century-old aircraft they were flying wasn't entirely safe.

They had friends who died in previous air-tanker crashes while flying under contract for the Forest Service .

And at least one of them, pilot Steven Wass, repeatedly had told colleagues, friends and family of his concerns about the structural integrity of the aging C-130A airplanes, especially the wings, according to a new 831-page Forest Service accident report.

Wass, 42, of Gardnerville, Nev., routinely kept on board with him a copy of an accident report on a triple fatal crash of a plane just like the one he was flying -- a plane that had rolled off the Lockheed production line in 1957 just two serial numbers after his.

That plane crashed in Southern California in 1994 after the wings fell off -- just like his.

"Steve Wass was very aware of the weak structure of the C-130s," according to one of more than 40 witnesses interviewed by Forest Service special agents after the crash last summer near Walker, Calif.

Witnesses' names were edited from a copy of the preliminary accident investigation report that the agency provided the Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request.

One witness indicated that he and Wass "had researched the C-130s and concluded that the A and B models had weak wing structures," special agent Debra Mathews wrote.

Wing Problems

Another witness who knew Wass for more than 20 years said the pilot had "raised pointed questions and concerns about the aircraft, being old with wing problems."

Wass told him that "the airplane was older than he or I, that the military got rid of them for a reason," the witness told Mathews.

The witness "stated that he did not want to see any more of his friends go down."

Co-pilot Craig LaBare, 36, of Loomis, Calif., and flight engineer Mike Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, were also killed in the June 17 crash while dropping retardant in the Sierra about 70 miles south of Reno.

A Reno television crew caught the moment on videotape when the plane's wings broke off and the tanker crashed in a fiery explosion.

LaBare's widow, Laurie, said her husband had talked of maintenance problems with the plane.

'Pieces of Junk'

"It's absolutely ridiculous to put pressure on these men to fly these planes ... these pieces of junk," she told KATU-TV in Portland, Ore., last summer.

The Forest Service has stopped using C-130As to fight fires.

The agency's crash investigation will be followed in coming months by the National Transportation Safety Board's accident report.

The NTSB has said fatigue cracks were found in the wings, and investigators are studying them and other safety issues to determine what caused the wings to fail.

The Forest Service report said the plane had 21,947 hours of flying time, mostly for the Air Force, and that a wing crack was repaired in 1998.

The report said earlier manufacturer tests on similar planes found structural problems after 19,000 hours of service.

The new report echoes findings of a blue-ribbon Forest Service panel that reviewed the nation's aerial firefighting fleet.

Nagging Question

Like the panel's December report, the new document points to the "culture" of federal firefighting forces and tries to answer a nagging question: If crew members feared for their safety, why didn't they complain? Why did they continue to climb into aircraft some labeled "flying deathtraps?"

There's no indication in the report that any of the crew members lodged formal complaints with the Forest Service, federal regulators or the tanker's owner, Hawkins & Powers Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.

The blue-ribbon panel called it "silent intimidation" -- being subtly expected to ignore maintenance or training violations.

"They felt the absence of an employment 'safety net,' and asserted that they have no recourse or appeal process if they are fired," the panel concluded.

In the more recent investigation, Forest Service special agents asked pilots if there were repercussions for refusing to fly.

"They are subtle," said an air-tanker pilot who dropped retardant on the same Sierra fire just hours before the fatal crash. "You get a reputation. USFS [Forest Service] wants us to fly, the operator wants us to fly, so we feel the pressure."

Another said: "If the crew complains, they get tagged as 'trouble tankers.' "

"They are deterred from speaking out," said the witness, who gave an example about a Forest Service employee giving a flight crew a hard time about maps it requested.

"When they complained, they were told to 'check out' because they were being transferred," the report said.

The blue-ribbon panel said an overall "culture that emphasizes cost efficiency also has created an admirable, but hazardous, 'can-do' ethos that pervades firefighting aviation.

"Unwittingly, the Forest Service has exploited the passion and willingness of its firefighters to do more with less."

The panel found that firefighters have become "almost completely reactive by accepting shortages as a standard way of life. This leads pilots and other firefighters to take more shortcuts and risks every season.

"Pilots, particularly pilots flying large air tankers, too often accept risks to accomplish a mission. With each passing season, crews discover they can accept a little more risk than before and still survive, and be paid for doing so. Risk becomes addictive, additive and accepted. Risk, as some indicated to the panel, is one of the most attractive features of the mission.

"Air tanker pilots convey a spirit of invincibility."

"Silent intimidation" is among issues that members of the Associated Airtanker Pilots want addressed during a meeting with Forest Service aviation officials scheduled Wednesday in Sacramento.

Rose Davis, a Forest Service spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said the agency's investigative report is intended to help determine if "there's anything internally we could have done better."

But Davis said the Forest Service never pressures pilots to fly unsafe equipment or in unsafe conditions. She said pilots are under the authority of their employer, who fights the fires under contract for the Forest Service.

"As far as this accident goes, if they had issues, it was with their boss, the contractor. How they interact with their employees is their own stuff," Davis said.

"Whatever Steve was thinking about his equipment or pressures in his company was Steve's thing, not something the Forest Service was involved in," she added.

One veteran air-tanker pilot, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said most firefighting pilots have "taken an airplane out we shouldn't have because there is a fire going on."

"We say, 'We'll get it fixed when we get back' or 'I'm a good enough pilot to get it out of there OK,' " the pilot told AP.

"Obviously, no one goes out when they think they are going to die or they think a wing will fall off. But it's just the culture of the mission orientation. It's like we've got a war on."

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