DENVER - A Missoula-based slurry bomber crashed through a fence at a suburban Denver airport Saturday, returning from a retardant drop on a wildfire in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Neptune Aviation's Tanker No. 44 crashed while landing at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office said both the pilot and co-pilot of the aircraft were OK. The names of the pilot and co-pilot had not yet been released.
Photographs from the crash scene showed the massive slurry bomber nose forward into the ground on the edge of the airport.
Calls to Neptune Aviation's headquarters in Missoula were not answered Saturday night, and its chief executive could not be reached either at the office or at home.
But Tanker No. 44 was pictured - in flight over a wildfire - on Neptune's website. News of the crash had not yet been posted there.
Rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park suspended slurry drops on the wildfire after the crash. The fire, likely ignited by lightning, had grown to 1,500 acres by Saturday evening. No structures were threatened but twenty-four backcountry campers were evacuated.
According to KUSA-TV in Denver, firefighters on the scene said the brakes on the aircraft apparently gave out. One of the engines also apparently caught on fire, according to KUSA.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by the television station said the plane rolled down a hill and through a fence, hitting a post. The post flew 200 yards and into a window at a nearby college. The plane also ended up partly on 120th Avenue, a busy thoroughfare in Broomfield.
A firefighter told KUSA that the plane was heavily loaded with fuel. "They are very fortunate in this case because they have a heavy load on that plane; they were actually able to go down this embankment a little bit and nose the ground," Wendy Forbes with North Metro Fire Rescue told the TV station.
No. 44 is a Lockheed P2V, originally designed as a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, then retrofitted by Neptune for dropping retardant on wildfires.
The company has lost two of its aircraft and crews to crashes in recent years, Tankers No. 09 and No. 42. In both of those crashes, all three crew members were killed.
Tanker No. 42 was flying from Missoula to Alamogordo, N.M., to help with a 31,000-acre fire there on April 25, 2009. It crashed on the western edge of the Oquirrh Mountains southeast of Salt Lake City in cloudy weather. Brian Buss of Alberton was one of three killed in the crash.
The other plane, Tanker No. 9, crashed in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 1, 2008. The plane was going on a run to drop a load of fire retardant on a small fire burning in Calaveras County, Calif. It crashed shortly after taking off and experiencing fire in one of its engines. One of the three crew on board was 25-year-old Zachary Jake Vander Griend of Missoula.