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Pilot’s Death Raises Questions About California’s Air Tanker Program With PM-Aerial

August 14, 1992

Pilot’s Death Raises Questions About California’s Air Tanker Program With PM-Aerial Firefighters-Glance

RAILROAD FLAT, Calif. (AP) _ Roger Stark strolled the halls of the Capitol, lobbying to protect California’s aging fleet of firefighting airplanes from budget cuts.

Two days later, on June 19, his S-2 air tanker crashed on a routine mission.

His death, just hours after he was told by higher-ups to stop complaining about funding, raised questions about the integrity of the state Department of Forestry’s air tanker program and its disturbingly high accident rate.

Through two dozen interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents, The Associated Press has learned:

- The S-2 planes, obtained free from the Navy, are old - most were built in the 1950s - and difficult to maintain. Records show a dozen rebuilt engines have proven faulty in the last 18 months.

- S-2s have potentially dangerous flight characteristics, such as the tendency to stall and to pitch up, and the Department of Forestry did not follow safety recommendations made by the military.

- The accident rate for the California fleet is nearly 2 1/2 times higher than that for federal firefighting planes.

Forestry department officials maintain that the fleet is safe.

Budget woes cut the fleet from 21 planes to 15 this summer. The twin-engine tankers can swiftly douse small blazes and slow the spread of larger fires. But the flights are risky, requiring sharp maneuvering at low altitude and sometimes poor visibility.

Stark, 48, had just dropped fire retardant on a blaze threatening homes near Railroad Flat in central California’s Calaveras County when his plane hit a tree. The drop, over relatively flat, forested terrain, should have been routine for a 20-year veteran.

″This accident is one of the biggest mysteries of all time,″ said Richard Ruggiero, manager of the forestry department’s air tanker operations. ″He was a very experienced pilot.″

The cause remains under investigation, but department officials said they have ruled out engine failure.

Stark’s widow, Joann, said she expects the department to blame pilot error, as it has in the eight other fatal crashes since the state began using the planes in 1975. Ten pilots have died; one plane carried two people.

Wanda Nagel, who was piloting a forestry department spotter plane and saw her friend crash, said Stark was in trouble before the plane hit the tree. She told investigators the plane made a perfect approach and emptied one of its four tanks of retardant; it then rolled to the left until it was nearly upside down and nosed into the ground.

Department officials said fire captain Frank Garcia, who was riding in Nagel’s plane, offered a similar account.

But Olis Kendrick, who manages the department’s aviation unit, said that based on witnesses on the ground, Stark apparently flew into the tree right after making the drop. Kendrick said the witnesses on the ground had a better view.

The plane did not have a flight recorder.

The department’s accident rate for the S-2 is nearly 2 1/2 times that of the U.S. Forest Service. The state has had one fatal crash for every 4,127 hours of flying; the Forest Service had one fatality for every 10,200 hours in the air.

Bill Teie, a forestry department deputy director, said a fairer comparison would be based on the number of missions. The state flies more missions that the Forest Service.

But the gap remains. The state agency had a fatal crash for every 8,254 missions, compared to one for every 15,300 for the national service.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration have no oversight. It is left to public agencies throughout the United States to investigate crashes of the aircraft they operate.

William Wimsatt, a lawyer who sued on behalf of the family of a pilot killed in a 1987 crash, said the state does not warn pilots enough about the S-2′s risky characteristics. ″The margin for error is virtually zip,″ said Wimsatt, a pilot who specializes in aviation cases.

Navy test pilots said in a 1966 study that the plane had a dangerous tendency to nose up sharply. The Navy recommended modifications.

In 1978, Army aviation experts found the S-2 marginal as an air tanker, and urged users to verify that the Navy-recommended changes had been made.

The state determined that the changes were not vital and the California fleet was not modified, said David Wardall, the forestry department’s airplane program manager. Ruggiero said the modifications would have made it hard to land a fully-loaded plane.

Stall warning indicators have been upgraded in 10 of 15 planes, Kendrick said. Budget problems prevented upgrades in the others, he said.

Earlier crashes also turned up widespread problems. After investigators said a stall warning indicator may have failed in a 1986 crash, checks found that 17 of 18 S-2s had faulty indicators.

Since January 1991, a dozen engines for the S-2s - nearly one of every two rebuilt for the forestry department since then - have been found to be faulty, including two that failed in flight, one after only 24 minutes of operation, said Kendrick.

Wardall, who manages the S-2 maintenance program, said the engine failures ″may be more than a coincidence″ and ″may be of concern.″

However, he stressed that the forestry department has ″steadfast, unbending standards″ and has ″gone the extra mile ... to make sure pilots are flying good equipment.″

Mrs. Stark recalled that on the eve of the crash, her husband was upset about being told to stop lobbying about the budget cuts.

″He paced and paced and talked about what he was going to do to get through the next few days,″ she said.

Up at 4:30 a.m., he headed to his last day of work.

His 10-year-old son has erected a simple wooden cross at the crash site.

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