Military: C-130 tankers to resume firefighting

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(AP) – Air Force C-130 tankers will resume firefighting flights Tuesday after a deadly crash of another tanker plane over the weekend, the U.S. Northern Command said. The crash of one of the specially equipped C-130s Sunday while fighting a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota prompted officials to ground the seven remaining planes in the fleet.

The C-130 was from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, N.C., and was carrying a crew of six. At least two crew members died and others were injured.

A second C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard will return to its home base in Charlotte, said Maj. Kimberly Holman, a Northern Command spokeswoman. The remaining six will return to firefighting duty, she said.

Northern Command, which oversees the planes while they are on firefighting duty, said the one-day suspension of flights was to review safety procedures. Northern Command is responsible for the military defense of the U.S. homeland and assisting civil authorities during emergencies. It is based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

The decision to suspend the C-130 flights briefly left just 14 federally contracted heavy tankers in use during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.

President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the aerial firefighting fleet at a cost of $24 million, but the first planes won’t be available until mid-August.

The C-130s can be called into firefighting duty if all the civilian heavy tankers are in use or unavailable. The C-130s are loaded with a device called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS. The system can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant within seconds through a nozzle in a modified side door toward the rear of the plane.

The military planes had been filling up with fire retardant and flying out of Peterson Air Force Base. The six active planes will continue working out of Peterson, Holman said.

C-130 air tankers have crashed on firefighting duty before. In 2002, a privately owned civilian version of an older-model C-130 crashed in California, killing three crew members. The plane broke up in flight and an investigation blamed fatigue cracks in the wings.

The crash, in part, prompted a review of the airworthiness of large U.S. air tankers and led ultimately to a greatly reduced fleet of large civilian tanker planes. The 44 planes in the fleet a decade ago has dwindled to nine being flown on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts right now.

Another aerial firefighting plane, the Lockheed P2V, has had some problems in recent months. One crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots, and another one crash-landed in Nevada.

Military officials have released few details of the South Dakota crash but acknowledged some crew members were killed and others were being treated for serious injuries at a hospital in Rapid City, S.D.

“There were lives lost,” Lt. Col. Robert Carver of the North Carolina National Guard said Monday. “We are very grateful for the survivors and our thoughts and prayers and hearts go out to the families that have lost loved ones.”

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Tuesday that two people had died in the crash. He didn’t identify either victim.

The family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., said they were told early Monday that he had died in the crash. They said he was a 42-year-old married father of two and a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the major fires burning in the West:

  • Montana: Critical fire conditions were expected Tuesday. The 292-square-mile Ash Creek Fire was 55 percent contained after burning 16 houses. The 34-square-mile Dahl fire was 95 percent contained after burning 73 homes.
  • Wyoming: The 138-square-mile Arapaho Fire is 10 percent contained after burning an undetermined number of structures. The Oil Creek Fire blew up from 9 square miles to about 31 square miles overnight and forced the evacuation of more than 400 people.
  • Colorado: The 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire was 70 percent contained overall, and the portion within Colorado Springs was fully contained. The fire killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 homes.
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