Utah Air Tanker Crash Has Ties to West Texas

By Geena Martinez
NewsWest 9

MIDLAND - An air tanker that crashed while fighting a fire in Utah on Sunday has a connection right here in the Basin.

That plane was part of the national air support that was called in to help put out the Rockhouse fire.

"Yesterday was a very devastating day for the fire and aviation management community," Jennifer Jones, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, said.

That community is mourning the loss of two pilots who crashed their plane while fighting a fire in Utah.

The P-2 V air tanker that went down helped put out the massive wildfire in Jeff Davis County last year.

Jones said these types of air tankers are some of the nation's main resource. After the crash, and a mishap with landing gear on another plane over the weekend, the Forest Service's fleet is down to just nine air tankers, and there's another issue.

"They are aging," Jones said. "Those are aircrafts that have been in existence for several decades now."

David Hickman, Asst. Fire Marshal for the Midland Fire Department, said the aging air support played a crucial role in the Rockhouse fire.

"That area was so rugged it was hard to get trucks and other kind of water resources in there," Hickman said. "They could get to those areas that the ground resources couldn't get to."

In 2011, Texas requested and received the most aircraft ever in state wildfire response history.

A record 17,000 flight hours were totaled.

The combination of aircraft dropped more than 34 million gallons of water and retardant.

So now with just nine tankers to share across 50 states, the support could be stretched thin.

"As soon as those resources are needed, they usually go somewhere else," Hickman said.

But the Forest Service has back-ups in place.

"We also have the capability to mobilize an additional 16 air tankers through agreements with cooperators and international agreements and the U.S. military," Jones said.

In February, the Forest Service presented a plan to Congress to bring in newer aircraft in the coming years. Hickman said that's good news.

"Those are air tankers that will be more reliable, have more carrying capacity and are faster," Jones said. "Especially in West Texas, they're really good for these types of fuels that we have."