When the landing gear on an air tanker failed over the weekend, the pilots were forced to make an emergency belly landing in Nevada. Amazingly, the two walked away unscathed, even though the plane suffered significant damage.
This was just one of two crashes that took place on Sunday, but the second plane fighting wildfires on the Utah-Nevada state line was not so lucky. In that crash, the two pilots were killed.
Watch this MSNBC report with footage of the belly landing and coverage of the other deadly crash over the 5,000 acre White Rock Fire:
The pilots flying a PV-2 air tanker — Tanker #55 — by Lockheed Martin were fighting fires in California when the left-side landing gear failed to extend. Crew members flew the plane owned by Minden Air Corp. for another 90 minutes to burn off fuel before making an emergency landing on the cleared runway of Minden-Tahoe Airport, Douglas County sheriff’s spokesman Jim Halsey said.
Here’s a KRNV news report shortly after the belly landing:
The second crash involved Captain Todd Neal Tompkins, 48, and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, Idaho, who were also flying a PV-2 air tanker — tanker #11 — dropping fire retardant in the Hamblin Valley area of western Utah after a lightening strike Friday night started the blaze. The fire spread across the Utah line Saturday night, but most remained in Nevada, about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
A helicopter crew saw the crash involving Tompkins and Chambless and told ground crews that “it didn’t look good,” Iron County, Utah, sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Jody Edwards told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Bureau of Land Management ground crews and helicopter crew members worked for a time to hold the fire back from the wreckage. Sheriff’s deputies drove and hiked for more than an hour to reach the site and confirm that the pilots had died, Edwards said.
The fire later overwhelmed the crash site, Edwards said.
A medical examiner helped authorities recover the bodies as of Sunday night.
The fire has been burning in steep, rugged terrain featuring pinion-juniper woodlands, sagebrush and grasses. Crews were pulled off the fire lines after the crash.
“To have them working on the fire lines after this is more than we would like to ask firefighters,” said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “It’s obviously a horrifying and tragic event.”
Firefighters didn’t expect to have the fire fully contained until Saturday, BLM spokesman Chris Hanefeld said.
Sunday’s incidents come several months after a group of Western senators questioned whether the Forest Service was moving quickly enough to build up and replace the fleet of aging planes that drop fire retardant on wildfires. Those in the two crashes over the weekend were built in the mid-1950s
The agency hires a mix of large and small airplanes and helicopters each year to fight wildfires. They are generally privately owned and work under contract.
Retardant dropped from planes is typically used to bolster a line cut by firefighters on the edge of a fire, and water dropped from helicopters is usually used to cool hotspots within a fire.
The current fleet is made up of Lockheed P-2Vs, anti-submarine patrol planes dating to the 1950s that have been modified with jets to supplement the piston engines. More than half are due to retire in 10 years.
The number of large aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004, when the Forest Service grounded 33 air tankers after a number of high-profile crashes.
In March, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked the Government Accountability Office to evaluate whether the Forest Service has done a good job of analyzing the types and numbers of aircraft needed, the cheapest way to get them, new technologies and where the planes will be based.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.