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Wing of Calfire plane may have hit tree during fatal crash

An twin-engine S-2T air tanker sits on the tarmac at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Aviation Management facility, in Sacramento, Calif., after it was announced that CalFire's fleet of 22 S-2 tankers were cleared to return to duty Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
An twin-engine S-2T air tanker sits on the tarmac at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Aviation Management facility, in Sacramento, Calif., after it was announced that CalFire's fleet of 22 S-2 tankers were cleared to return to duty Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. AP

A preliminary report from federal transportation authorities says the airplane that crashed while fighting a Yosemite fire this month may have clipped a tree on its way down.

Air tanker pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed Oct. 7 when his Cal Fire aircraft crashed in Yosemite National Park while fighting the Dog Rock fire. Hunt, 62, of San Jose was a veteran pilot of DynCorp International and flew the air tanker under a contract with the state.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary information on the crash of Tanker 81 said the plane, stationed at Hollister, made a drop on the fire and then proceeded to a nearby airport to reload retardant.

During the firefight, two other aircraft were used: an aerial controller that controlled operations with ground units and a lead plane that tracked ahead of the tanker to define the way to the start of the retardant drop.

When Tanker 81 returned to the scene for a second drop, Hunt coordinated with the aerial controller and followed the lead plane. The crew of the lead plane did not see the crash.

However, according to the report, “the crew of the controller airplane reported the accident plane may have struck a tree with its wing, which separated from the airplane.”

Visibility was reported to be good, despite smoke from the fire, according to the report.

A final report still must be prepared.

“Aerial firefighting is not simply flying from one airport to another,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention director Ken Pimlott said in a press release. “The wildland firefighting environment is a challenging one, both on the ground and in the air. We look forward to the final NTSB report to see if we can use the findings to help mitigate the inherent dangers of the job. We owe that to Craig, who traded his life in an effort to protect the lives of others.”

Cal Fire’s fleet of air tankers was grounded for two days until investigators determined the crash was not a result of equipment failure that could affect the remaining 22 aircraft.

The Dog Rock fire burned 311 acres before it was contained.

Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079.

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