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Neptune Aviation Tanker 11 was dropping a load of retardant on the leading edge of the White Rock fire in Utah on Sunday afternoon when one wing apparently hit a tree and the Lockheed P2V cartwheeled into the ground.

“From what the investigators could see, the plane began to touch the treetops as it tried to unload its retardant,” Iron County Sheriff’s Detective Jody Edwards said from Cedar City, Utah, where Tanker 11 was based for the fire. “They could see the cone of debris where the slurry came out, see where the wing tip touched and see a number of divots where it broke into several pieces.

“In spite of the efforts of firefighters, the fire passed through the debris field,” Edwards said. “We had 10 members walk the debris field to preserve evidence and recover the bodies. The soles of our shoes were melting. Some of the aluminum from the plane had turned molten, and ran down the hillside.”

The crash killed pilot Todd Tompkins, 48, and co-pilot Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, Idaho. Neptune Aviation crews on wildfires around the country stood down to mourn on Sunday. They resumed work on Monday.

The White Rock fire had grown from 15 acres to 5,000 between its lightning start on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. By Monday, it was up to 8,000 acres.

Tompkins had been flying for 20 years, including 14 years as an air tanker pilot. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

Chambless was a wildland firefighter and had been with Neptune for one year. He had eight years of aviation experience.

The stand-down was for personal reasons and not an aircraft safety factor, according to Don Smurthwaite at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigative crew was on its way to the crash site west of Cedar City, Utah, on Monday. Two single-engine air tankers resumed retardant drops on the White Rock fire as well.

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Tanker 11 was one of two P2V firefighting aircraft that crashed on Sunday. The other belonged to Minden Aviation of Minden, Nev. That plane reported faulty landing gear shortly after releasing a load of retardant on the George fire near Sequoia National Monument in California. It made a belly-landing with two of its three wheels functioning at its home base in Minden on Sunday afternoon. No one was injured.

U.S. Forest Service fire and aviation management spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the agency required Minden to inspect its other active P2V for landing gear issues after the crash. But no action has been taken about airworthiness of the remaining seven Neptune P2V planes, she said.

Neptune had eight P2Vs and one modern BAe-146 jet contracted to the Forest Service for this fire season. A ninth P2V was pulled from service in February after an off-season inspection found a large crack in part of one wing.

Neptune pilots had a similar emergency to the Minden incident at Missoula International Airport in April, when a landing gear in its training plane appeared faulty. The plane landed without incident. That plane was not contracted for firefighting activity.

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The crashes renewed a debate over how the Forest Service should provide aerial firefighting planes.

“Yesterday we had 11 air tankers operational, and today we have nine,” Jones said. “To compensate for operational loss of Tanker 11 and Tanker 55, we’re still trying to figure out what other assets we’re able to mobilize.”

One plane is a CV-580 large air tanker operated by the state of Alaska, which is already heading for duty in the lower 48 states. The Forest Service can also call on eight Air National Guard C-130 planes modified to carry retardant tanks, seven other CV-580s belonging to Alaskan and Canadian authorities, and one DC-10 jet that has been modified for firefighting.

“We also have hundreds of helicopters and single-engine tankers available,” Jones said.

Although Neptune’s P2V airplanes date back to the Korean War, the company’s Missoula base has been fabricating its own parts to keep them airworthy.

Two air tankers owned by the Wyoming-based Hawkins and Powers Co. had fatal crashes in 2002. In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire large air tanker fleet in the United States, putting 44 planes on the tarmac.

A lengthy safety review followed, with many air tanker companies opting to go out of business after their planes couldn’t meet FAA and Forest Service standards. Neptune passed the inspection, and in 2008 landed a five-year contract with the Forest Service for its 11 P2V planes.

One of Neptune’s P2Vs crashed into a Utah mountainside in 2010, killing both crew members. That crash was deemed weather-related. The next year, Neptune unveiled a jet-powered BAe-146 it proposed to be the future of aerial firefighting. While the jet passed its tests for working in forest fire airspace, it has taken longer for its retardant tank to meet Forest Service specifications.

The Forest Service contract expired this year, and the agency has not yet released the awards for its “next-generation” aircraft contracts. Last fall, Neptune won an interim contract to fly its BAe-146 jet tanker on fires. The Forest Service granted it another one-year interim contract this spring. Neptune officials said they planned on acquiring several more BAe-146s this year if the contracts came through.

Several members of Congress have demanded the Forest Service speed up its efforts to modernize the aerial firefighting fleet, including Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. In February and March, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chided the Forest Service about when new aircraft would be available.

“As the air tanker fleet continues to atrophy, it’s going to reduce the country’s ability to get there early, which is why so many of these fires mushroom,” Wyden told the Associated Press on Monday.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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