On April 20, a Lockheed P-3B air tanker, owned and operated by Aero Union Corporation of Chico, California, was lost during the tenth training flight of the day 12 miles north of the Chico Municipal Airport in the Ishi Wilderness. The aircraft, Tanker 26, was destroyed by fire and impact forces, and three crewmembers – Captain Brian Bruns, Captain Paul Cockrell and Aero Union’s chief pilot, Captain Tom Lynch – were killed in the crash. Company president and CEO Terry Unsworth said, “We are all grieving the loss of these brave men and our immediate concern is for their families.” The accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The preliminary NTSB report states that the purpose of the flights was to “provide recurrent flight training for pilots scheduled to conduct firefighting operations for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) during the upcoming fire season. The accident flight involved conducting practice drops of water over an area of rugged mountainous terrain. Aboard the flight were a pilot, a co-pilot and Aero Union’s chief pilot who was providing flight instruction. Prior to departing on the flight, the airplane was loaded with 2,550 gallons of water.” U.S. Forest Service contract air tankers such as the P-3B routinely provide aerial firefighting mutual aid when requested by state and local fire agencies during major wildfires in Southern California. Forest Service air tankers fought the Topanga/Malibu wildfires in 1993 and California’s worst wildfires in 2003. Aero Union and Chief Pilot Lynch were featured in the April issue of “Wildland Firefighter” magazine in an article by Paul M. Ross Jr. a Firefighter/EMT/ Helitack Squad Leader with 14 years experience in Western U.S. wildland firefighting and urban rescue. Ross, who had corresponded with Lynch for five years, said, “The loss of Tom, Brian and Paul is a real loss to the firefighting community of dedicated pilots who have helped citizens across the U.S. in dealing with severe wildfires.” The aerial firefighting industry is a close-knit association of pilots, owners and operators. The crash of Tanker 26 was a blow to the industry, which has lost more than 163 pilots since 1958, as well as to residents of areas that are vulnerable to wildfires such as Topanga and Malibu. When contracts for 33 large capacity tankers were cancelled by the Forest Service due to safety concerns after two tankers crashed in 2002, the P-3 was approved for this year’s fire season after rigorous review by Sandia National Laboratories and an independent testing agency. Aero Union’s P-3s make up the largest number of contracts awarded by the Forest Service for large capacity air tankers this year. Originally a long range Navy anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft, P-3s have been converted to carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.Aero Union has established a special fund to assist the families of the pilots who lost their lives. Contributions can be sent to: AUC In Trust of Tanker Families, 100 Lockheed Avenue, Chico, CA 95973.
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