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Mon, Mar 03, 2003

Crews Were Worried About Tanker Safety

But Report Says They Never Reported Concerns

You know the drill. You worry about your 30-year old aircraft, but, after all, it's been flying so well for so long, you talk yourself out of your concerns. Besides, there's work to do. You know how the drill sometimes end, too. Eventually, one of those worries can kill you.

Steven Wass Was Worried

Firefighting tanker pilot Steven Wass repeatedly told colleagues, friends and family about his worries concerning the structural integrity of aging C-130A firefighting aircraft. He was especially concerned about the wings. That's the finding of a new 831-page Forest Service accident report.

Wass, 42, of Gardnerville (NV), always kept on board with him a copy of an accident report on a triple fatal accident involving a C-130A 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 as his did years later. "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 in Mono County.

One witness said 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.

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 "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 and flight engineer Mike Davis, 59, of Bakersfield also were killed in the June 17 crash while dropping retardant in the Sierra about 70 miles south of Reno. A Reno TV crew caught the moment on videotape when the plane's wings broke off and the tanker crashed in a fiery explosion.

"Pressure On These Men To Fly"

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

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

The safety board 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 Forest Service panel that reviewed the nation's aerial firefighting fleet.

Culture Clash?

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 the 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 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.

Fear Of Flying. Fear Of Speaking Out.

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 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 so-called "silent intimidation" is among issues that members of the Associated Airtanker Pilots want addressed during a meeting with Forest Service aviation officials scheduled for 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 fight 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 said.

Steve Wass' brother Jeff said the family doesn't blame either the Forest Service or the contractor. "We don't feel there was any intention of getting anybody hurt. Steve had flown with them for a long time. He actually would be considered family to them," Jeff Wass said.

"It's more of a concern of our family to make sure the Forest Service pays the operators to maintain and provide a safe work environment. Probably the biggest thing we can do for Steve is to try to make sure that the industry becomes safer and that nobody else loses family members in the same situation."

FMI: www.fs.fed.us/fire

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