By PAUL FOY and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Federal investigators said Tuesday mechanical failure forced an air tanker fighting a Nevada wildfire to make a crash landing, but they were still trying to determine what brought down another tanker of the same vintage in southern Utah, killing two pilots.
Both accidents happened Sunday, and a National Transportation Safety Board investigator was at the scene of the remote Utah crash Tuesday, trying to determine what went wrong. The company that owns the Lockheed P2V said it believes a cockpit voice recorder survived the wreck and could yield clues to the plane's emergency before it went down.
Investigators also will interview the pilot of the tanker's "spotter" plane, the smaller aircraft assigned to guide the tanker as it dropped retardant, U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said.
The P2V was once a Cold War-era submarine attack plane but for years has been a mainstay of the nation's aerial firefighting arsenal.
At a news conference Tuesday in Albuquerque, N.M., Tidwell acknowledged the need to modernize the country's firefighting fleet and said the Forest Service was asking contractors to upgrade to a more modern plane.
He added officials will "have to wait and see" what comes out of the investigation. But for now, "we wouldn't be flying these aircraft if we didn't think they were safe," Tidwell said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, countered that the agency needs to act — and fast.
"These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet," Tester wrote Tidwell in a letter released Tuesday. "Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement."
Two pilots were killed in the Utah crash — Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho — but no one was hurt when the other P2V was forced to make a crash landing at Nevada's Minden-Tahoe Airport.
Video of the crash landing shows the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across a runway. NTSB investigator Kurt Anderson said bay doors for the aircraft's left-side landing gear failed to open.
"The gear tried to extend, but the doors wouldn't let it," Anderson told The Associated Press.
Tidwell said Tuesday the company that owned the plane that crashed in Utah has a "stellar track record." Montana-based Neptune Aviation says its fleet flew 2,600 hours last year without an accident.
The tanker that crashed was built in 1962, according to federal aviation records, but had been modified to fight fires and was among only a handful of air tankers available nationwide. The other P2V was owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev.
Neptune insisted the P2V is a safe plane, despite its age. The company has gathered the plane's maintenance records for an NTSB investigation; however, it refused to make those records public Tuesday.
Tuesday morning, a NTSB investigator arrived at the scene of the Utah crash and began scouring the 600-yard debris field for clues about why the plane went down.
The tanker crashed while battling a lightning-caused wildfire that jumped the Nevada border about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower says it appeared a wing tip hit the ground in a rocky canyon. The plane practically disintegrated, killing both pilots aboard.
Firefighters said they didn't expect full containment of the blaze burning over roughly 5,500 acres of rolling hills of pine, juniper and cheat grass until Sunday.
Also Tuesday, Tidwell surveyed the burn scar being left by a massive blaze in southwestern New Mexico that has developed into the largest wildfire in the country. He took an aerial tour of the fire, which has scorched more than 404 square miles since being sparked by lightning about three weeks ago.
Firefighters were building fire lines and conducting more burnout operations to keep the giant Whitewater-Baldy fire from making any aggressive runs along its boundaries.
"We still have active fire within the perimeter, but they're a little more comfortable that they've got a handle on it," fire information officer Gerry Perry said. "That doesn't mean the fire is over, but things are looking better."
The blaze became the largest in recorded New Mexico history after making daily runs across tens of thousands of acres in strong winds.
In Colorado, authorities said Tuesday that lightning started a 227-acre wildfire that has damaged two outbuildings northwest of Fort Collins.
Sheriff's officials say residents of 13 homes that were evacuated after the fire started Monday were being allowed to return Tuesday evening but should be ready to leave again if needed. The blaze was 45 percent contained.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, N.M.
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