Arizona air tankers briefly grounded after deadly crash

Posted: Updated:
Air tankers grounded By Jennifer Thomas Air tankers grounded By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- The heavy hitter of fighting fires by air is not getting better with age. It took one day of disaster to draw the nation's attention to the fleet we've watched drop water and retardant over Arizona's wildfires.

"The air tanker community is a pretty close-knit community and when something like this happens they take a little time to gather their emotions," said Dave Killebrew with the U.S. Forest Service.

A heavy air tanker in Nevada wasn't actively fighting a fire on Sunday but was coming in for a landing without part of its landing gear. Cameras watched as it slid onto the tarmac by the belly of the plane. Federal Investigators say it was a mechanical failure that forced the crash landing.

Then, a true tragedy, as the same style tanker fighting a lightning-sparked fire crashed in southern Utah. Two pilots died on impact. Investigators hope the cockpit voice recorder will tell what happened.

On Monday, the owner of that tanker grounded its fleet, including some here in Arizona.

"Neptune Aviation stood down the three heavy air tankers they have in the region; Arizona, New Mexico," Killebrew said.

These problems aren't much of a shock as the wear and tear to these Cold War-era planes show. U.S. Forest Service says it's had to reduce the fleet from 43 tankers in 2000 to 11 air tankers in 2011. With an average age of 50 years old it's clear they're due for an upgrade. But the grounding only lasted one day and the planes remaining are ready to fly

"All three of those aircraft are now back in operation, or they're back available for dispatch and available for flying if needed," Killebrew said.

Reports are that the grounding of the planes was for more emotional reasons rather than to examine the planes. Just last month, the U.S. Forest Service released a report on its plans to modernize the heavy air tanker fleet. It includes looking for new models of aircraft over the next few years that can also carry more water and retardant.