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Forest Service Wrestles with Reports of Improper Maintenance

January 6, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A year after two fatal crashes, Forest Service inspectors warned that the airplanes used to fight fires were being poorly maintained by inexperienced mechanics.

The warnings last summer prompted Forest Service officials to appoint an internal team of aviation experts to review the allegations of ``serious inadequacies″ in the air tanker program, according to agency documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The team generally dismissed the inspectors’ criticism as lacking specific evidence and documentation, but nonetheless issued a list of recommendations intended to improve safety of the air fleet.

Two of the flying companies whose maintenance procedures were inspected last summer had operated planes involved in 1994 crashes that killed five men fighting forest fires in California and Montana, according to the previously undisclosed memos.

In some cases, maintenance was put off until the problems were so severe the aircraft couldn’t get off the ground, said one memo obtained by the AP.

``In many cases the only time a mechanic is sent is when it is so bad the crew cannot fix it,″ a maintenance program manager for the Forest Service reported last June in a memo to his boss in Redmond, Ore.

``Flight crews should not be doing most of the maintenance to the aircraft. When we allow this to happen the only things repaired are the items that are broken to the point the aircraft cannot fly,″ Richard R. Watkins wrote.

The Forest Service’s troubled air tanker program has been under scrutiny since 1991 when two C-130s under fire fighting contracts showed up hauling cargo for pay in Kuwait after the Persian Gulf War.

Rep. Charles Rose, D-N.C., led a congressional inquiry into the program, claiming it was serving as a cover for covert CIA operations.

Agriculture Department spokesman Jim Peterson said Friday officials familiar with the Forest Service program were not available to comment because of the partial government shutdown.

Watkins visited several contractors last year, including operators of the planes that crashed in 1994 _ Hemet Valley Flying Service of Hemet, Calif., and Neptune Inc., with planes in Missoula, Mont., and Alamogordo, N.M.

The National Transportation Safety Board said last month that a fuel leak probably caused the mid-air explosion and crash of Hemet Valley’s C-130, killing three in the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles, Aug. 13, 1994.

The safety board said those kind of cargo planes have a history of fuel leaks and should have been checked before the flight.

Mike Venable of Hemet Valley Flying Service said Friday he was familiar with the criticism in the Forest Service memo but that he had no comment.

The safety board didn’t get involved with the crash of Neptune’s P2V tanker, which killed the pilot and co-pilot fighting fires near Missoula, July 29, 1994.

The Forest Service’s internal investigation of that crash ``determined there were no maintenance-related issues to the crash,″ said Kori Jo Schloemer, general counsel for Neptune Inc.

Neptune also hired a former NTSB investigator to review the crash and he found ``no maintenance issues were related to the cause of the accident,″ she said Saturday from Ketchum, Idaho.

Safety concerns were brought to the attention of Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas last summer by Patrick J. Kelly, the agency’s regional aviation officer for Oregon and Washington state.

``The air tanker program seems to be in a state of decline,″ Kelly wrote in the memo Aug. 22, 1995, citing Watkins’ inspections. ``The air tanker accidents and incidents with serious potential of the past several years only highlight the concern.″

Mary Jo Lavin, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation management, said in an Oct. 31 memo that a team of six agency experts had completed a ``technical and administrative review″ of the reports by Kelly and Watkins.

The team met in Boise, Idaho, in September, but it was not clear whether it actually inspected any of the contractors.

``The issues raised in the memorandums were not ... substantiated with any degree of documentation, evidence or statistics. They were raised as generalizations that were very difficult to deal with in substantive ways,″ the team said in a report Sept. 29.

The team said several of the air tanker operators have senior mechanics on their staffs. Each contractor has ``long established, FAA accepted, maintenance programs that include all of the elements required and associated with FAA standards...″

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