Safety through tragedy

Without knowing the exact cause of Monday's air tanker crash that killed three crew members fighting the wildfire near Walker, it seems clear the C-130A wasn't up to the work it was being asked to do.

Now six other aircraft have been grounded by the National Interagency Fire Center until investigators can determine what happened. But every time firefighters die in the course of battling wildland fires, we ask the same question: Why did it take a disaster to expose the flaws?

Fighting wildfires is an admittedly dangerous occupation. From the crews on the ground to the pilots dropping retardant, and especially to the smokejumpers who parachute into the West's most rugged terrain, there is an element of extreme risk.

Too often in recent years, however, we have looked back on a wildfire tragedy to discover people died not from the known risks but from error, flaw or bad judgment.

In the instance of Monday's crash, many eyewitnesses and the unmistakable record of videotape will give investigators the evidence they need to make specific findings.

Anyone who has seen the KOLO-TV tape of the crash has a clear impression of the wings simply folding up and allowing the fuselage to plummet to the ground.

By all accounts, pilot Steve Wass of Gardnerville was a skilled and careful veteran of wildfire bombing. But there's not much even the best can do when the machine fails.

The C-130A Hercules being flown by Wass was four years older than the pilot. A 1998 inspection had uncovered two 1-inch cracks in the surface of one of the wings. That problem was repaired, and the plane passed an inspection in October.

Still, we expect to learn when the investigation is complete that this plane should not have been in the air on Monday. We expect recommendations to be made, planes repaired or upgraded, and the legacy of the Walker crash to be safer airplanes for the crews fighting wildfires.

Once again, however, it will have come at the expense of three lives.


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